They Want Invocations? Let’s Give Them Invocations!

Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled in the case of Greece v Galloway that it was constitutional for a town council to begin its meetings with prayer, even if the prayer was almost always from one religion. This really wasn’t a surprise given who is on the bench, but it changes the standard from prohibiting endorsement to prohibiting coercion (a change which already prompted some groups to push the bounds by promising to give Christian-only prayers).

It seems that the five Justices in the majority, led by Justice Anthony Kennedy, based their ruling on the idea that the prayers are merely “ceremonial,” and that they have no practical negative effect on those who wish not to be subjected to them. But if they are so ineffective and innocuous that their presence doesn’t matter for those who don’t want them, wouldn’t that also mean that they are so impotent and useless that their absence wouldn’t be missed? I don’t see why they get to have it both ways.

Anyway, while the case at hand was specifically about town council meetings, I fully expect that the Religious Right will seek to expand this broadened power for government representatives to invoke their personal beliefs in other areas. So, though one of the new tests of acceptable use of prayer extracted from Justice Kennedy’s opinion is that “(s)uch prayers are permissible when most, if not all, of the audience is made up of adults,” I expect that we will see people brandishing Greece v Galloway for further defense and expansion of student-, teacher-, and administrator-led prayer in schools, youth sports, graduations, and school board meetings across the country.

So, now that invocations have a stronger foothold in the fabric of American life, how can we respond? While there’s nothing we can do directly to petition or change the membership of the Supreme Court (though a donation to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State can help fund future lawsuits), there are direct ways to respond.

As Katherine Stewart of the New York Times notes:

Another prong in the assault on the Establishment Clause is to use neutrality among religious denominations as a wedge for inserting the (presumed) majority religion into state business. In theory, “neutrality” means giving every sect an equal shot at officiating prayer at Greece’s council meetings. In practice, the town government has unquestionably identified itself with what it takes to be the majority religion in the area.

Let’s make it more difficult for the any town council or school boards that want to follow this approach.

  1. Become a Secular Invocation Speaker

    The Humanist Society (an adjunct to the American Humanist Association) has been building a listing of AHA members who are willing and able to give Secular Invocations. By being a Secular Invocation Speaker, you can combat one of the techniques of the Town of Greece, which was to claim that they didn’t know of any alternatives to Christian prayers for their meetings. If we make ourselves available to speak at such events, we make it harder for the Religious Right to claim or imply that everyone in the country agrees with them. We can stand up against the attempt to erase us from government.

    I found out about and applied for the program the day after the decision came down, and I was accepted the next day. I haven’t been an approved Invocation Speaker long enough to have been called upon yet, but I look forward to the opportunity to give a Humanist message at an inauguration, town council meeting, school board meeting, or some other venue in which prayer otherwise may have the monopoly.

  2. Use a Secular Invocation Speaker

    If you are not interested in being a Secular Invocation Speaker yourself, another option would be to invite one to a meeting you run, if you are in the position to influence these decisions. There are registered Secular Invocation Speakers in many states, and perhaps one of them is close enough to you that you might be able to suggest use of a Secular Invocation Speaker at a graduation, school board meeting, town or county council meeting or other public event.

Let’s respond to Greece v Galloway by making sure that the Religious Right does not get what they want: a monopoly on viewpoint presented by our government.

Note: This article originally appeared on Grounded Parents.

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About Lance Finney

Father of two boys, Java developer, Ethical Humanist, and world traveler (when I can sneak it in). Contributor to Grounded Parents.
This entry was posted in Grounded Parents, Humanism and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to They Want Invocations? Let’s Give Them Invocations!

  1. dr24hours says:

    “I don’t see why they get to have it both ways.” I don’t understand? Having what both ways? It seems that they are saying precisely that: they are so inconsequential that they don’t matter either way. Thus, town halls are free to have them or not, because who gives a shit?

    • Lance Finney says:

      “It seems that they are saying precisely that: they are so inconsequential that they don’t matter either way.”

      That’s the defense they give in court, but that’s not the argument they make in public. It is very, very important to some elements of the Religious Right that public meetings start with Christian prayer, and some city councils have chosen to spend tens or hundred of thousands of dollars to be able to continue doing it.

      So, which is it? Is it so important and effective that it must be maintained? Or is it so anodyne that no one should object?

  2. dr24hours says:

    In general, I don’t understand the extremely broad interpretation of the establishment clause of first amendment supported by the skeptical community. “Congress shall make no law respecting and establishment of religion…” A town hall having a prayer is not “congress making a law”.

    Just as the first does not protect us from the consequences of speech, it should not protect us from contact with religion.

    • Lance Finney says:

      The argument is that the 14th Amendment extended protections of the rest of the Constitution to other levels of government, including the protection of not having the government endorse a religion. Justice Thomas vehemently disagrees with this interpretation, of course.

    • Lance Finney says:

      Also, I don’t think anyone thinks that the Establishment Clause insulates people from
      “contact with religion” – that’s way too broad. No one (to my knowledge) says that the First Amendment means that I can sue if I see a church or a religious billboard, etc.

      The difference is that this is religion brought into governmental activity. I don’t expect to be protected from the existence of religion, but I shouldn’t have to join in on a prayer (or conspicuously excuse myself) when petitioning my town council for government activity.

      If the town council members want to pray, no one should stop them from praying in their own space or in their own time. But they shouldn’t be able to turn the governmental meetings they run into de facto branches of their churches.

      • dr24hours says:

        Fair enough. I still think there’s a schism between the skeptical position that freedom of speech is interpreted extremely narrowly (“It just means you can’t be imprisoned for what you say, and has no other functional effect.”) while the establishment clause is interpreted extremely broadly (“Putting any religious symbol on public land is a government endorsement of a particular religion and is banned.”).

        I think they’re very self-serving definitions.

      • Lance Finney says:

        I don’t see the contradiction between those positions. They both put limits on what the government can do (or can be done in the name of the government), but not limits on what private individuals can do.

  3. dr24hours says:

    It does put limits on what private individuals can do: many private individuals put monuments on public lands which are then taken down for religious expression. (instead of say, trespassing, which seems more reasonable to me)

    I think any time one’s comprehensive interpretation of the law uniformly results in positions beneficial to themselves, they’re reading it according to their own biases. The first amendment in extremely complex, and protects some things that are not quite right, and fails to protect other things that are very important. Thus, many interpretations have been required over the centuries.

    So, wrt to public crosses, I can’t necessarily see why the free exercise clause doesn’t trump the establishment clause? “My religion requires me to pray aloud immediately before I start any work with others.” Why should the establishment clause rule in a government office, rather than the free exercise clause? “My religion requires me to erect monuments to my coreligionists who died in combat, on the property they died defending.” Same question.

  4. Lance Finney says:

    That’s why I included “(or can be done in the name of the government)”. Allowing some people to put personal religious memorials on public land is an implicit endorsement by the government, unless everyone equally has those rights.

    In Greece v Galloway, the problem was that only Christians were granted those rights.

    “My religion requires me to pray aloud immediately before I start any work with others.”
    1. The Bible actually disparages loud prayer, expressing a strong preference for private prayer. Of course, that’s not an answer that the courts can give; people are allowed to define their own subset of their religion.
    2. This isn’t a case where the mayor or an alderman wanted personally to pray – I’m not sure how the courts would handle that, but that wasn’t what was happening. Instead, the council invited Christian clergy in to give a prayer that all in attendance were expected to participate in. This isn’t about an individual who wanted to pray for him- or herself; this is a way of getting everyone who has business in government to participate in the religious rituals of one portion of the society.

    “Why should the establishment clause rule in a government office, rather than the free exercise clause?”

    It’s because a government official working in his or her official capacity isn’t working solely as an individual, but also as a representative of the government. The government shouldn’t require citizens to participate in a religious ritual in order to petition for grievances (or other town council business).

    • dr24hours says:

      For the record, I agree with (most of) your interpretation. But I don’t see it as the only valid interpretation. Where establishment and exercise conflict, I can’t see the automatic victory of establishment as the only valid read.

      • Lance Finney says:

        When it’s an individual who just wants to have a Bible at his or her desk to read at break, I’m sympathetic to the intersection.

        When prayer is an agenda item on a public meeting, I’m not.

  5. dr24hours says:

    Fair enough. What about a teacher who wants to lead a voluntary prayer group on school grounds, on the weekend, by renting the space? Many schools rent out space to congregations. Is that one ok?

    • Lance Finney says:

      I think that renting space on a fair market value should be ok, though I know there is controversy about that.

      Regarding the teacher, I think that’s fine, as long as the teacher doesn’t mix it with her classroom – there should be no invitations to students that imply favoritism or grade improvement (and maybe no invitations to students at all).

      • dr24hours says:

        OK. I think that many strict separationists would say that the teacher thing is right out.

      • Lance Finney says:

        I don’t think I’ve heard that position. I think it’s pretty clear that a government employee is allowed to be a private citizen in their private time, but the cross the line if they, say, use school letterhead for evangelism.

      • dr24hours says:

        I’ve heard people say that if teachers go to church, they shouldn’t be hired by public schools, because that means the school is endorsing the teacher’s religion.

      • Lance Finney says:

        I won’t deny that you’ve heard that, but I never have. That’s ridiculous.

      • dr24hours says:

        OK, I’ve heard *person* say that.

      • dr24hours says:

        And it was “if a teacher goes to the same church as a student”. I think the implication being that the teacher would be seen as a religious authority at school.

      • Lance Finney says:

        Interesting. I think there’s potential for crossing the line when a teacher and student go to the same church, but just potential. So the teacher should be careful, but I think that blanket prohibitions go way too far.

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