Jewish World Review May 12, 2014 / 12 Iyar, 5774
Church 5, State 4
By Paul Greenberg
The First Amendment won one this week before the
This should have been a simple case and the outcome obvious from the start. But before the justices could do the right thing in a free country, they had to go through an intense and protracted debate. Only then did they uphold the First (and most basic) Amendment, the one that both protects the free exercise of religion and prohibits the government from establishing a religion of its own.
But it took the closest of votes for the court to reach that self-evident conclusion and agree that, yes, people should be allowed to pray as they wished before meetings of a town council in
The only surprise here was that a court which begins its every session with a prayer, "G0D save
But the four dissenters in this case objected mightily to the court's conclusion. To quote the dissenting opinion of Her Honor Elena Kagan, letting folks pray as they wish -- rather than utter some safe, government-approved, generically nonsectarian prayer that wouldn't offend anybody -- would violate the Constitution's ban on government's establishing a religion.
Yes, that's the same Constitution which ends by noting that it was written and approved "by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven...."
Delicious. For connoisseurs of irony, the dissenting opinions in this case are a veritable banquet.
And the result has been a great success. Thanks to the First Amendment, this country has nurtured one of the most religiously fervent yet religiously tolerant societies in the world. We've been able to achieve that feat because courts and legislatures have kept their hands off religion -- rather than decree just how much of it to allow.
A Frenchman named de Tocqueville, the eloquent observer and analyst of "Democracy in America," which was the title of his still highly relevant study of that subject back in the 1830s, noted that both "the spirit of liberty" and the "spirit of religion" have not only co-existed in this
The innocent citizens offering those prayers aren't public officials setting down the law or speaking for the State. Indeed, they may be speaking to it as well as to their own G0D, and they have every right, even duty, to speak as their own conscience dictates.
If their prayer, their free exercise of religion, offends others, there's another part of the First Amendment that would seem to cover that eventuality, even probability, in a free country. It's the part of the amendment that guarantees freedom of speech and of the press. Those who object to the contents of a prayer offered at a public meeting, or even to a prayer's being offered at all, can express their objections in public, too. By making a statement of their own, or writing a letter to the editor. Rather than trying to gag the rest of us. It's the American way.
Let everybody have their say -- and their own prayers. This is called tolerance, and it's the mark of a society that is both free and stable. No society ever prospered by suppressing either different opinions or different prayers. However tempted the
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Paul Greenberg is the Pulitzer prize-winning editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
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