first amendmentKatherine Stewart is most unhappy about the recent Supreme Court decision, Greece v. Galloway. The Court upheld the right of the town of Greece, New York, to being town hall meetings with prayer, so long as no one was coerced into participating. And that makes Ms. Stewart unhappy.

In an op-ed piece for The New York Times, Ms. Stewart decries the Court’s decision as something akin to a vast, right-wing conspiracy.

The first order of business is to remove objections by swiping aside the idea that soft forms of establishment exist at all. Here, the Greece decision delivers, substantially.

A second element of the plan for undermining concerns based on the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause is to reinterpret public acts as personal expressions of speech by private individuals. Thus, when the minister appointed by the municipal government of Greece bids “all rise,” the Supreme Court majority tells us, this is not an establishment of religion because the words are not uttered by public officials. And when the town leaders respond with a sign of the cross, that isn’t establishment either, because, just then, public officials are acting as private individuals.

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.


Oh, dear. Might I address Ms. Stewart directly?

Dear Ms. Stewart,

I’m sorry you’re so unhappy about the Greece v. Galloway decision. But I have to tell you, you misunderstand many things about those of us who seek to protect our freedom of religion guaranteed to us in our nation’s Constitution. Let me just address a couple of things.

First, you call us “cock-a-hoop,” by which I assume you mean crazy. We are not. We are faithful. We adhere to religious beliefs and tenets. Like billions of people living now, and billions who have come before us. Being devout does not make one “cock-a-hoop.” It makes one devout.

Second, you seem a little – how to put this? – paranoid. We folks who head to synagogue, church or mosque every week are not looking to force anyone to march along side us into services. We just want the same thing you have: equal protection under the law. If you don’t want to pray, don’t pray. Opening a meeting with prayer is an invitation to prayer, not a coercive headlock to comply. Relax, close your eyes and think about nothing or flowers or puppies or whatever you wish. Or don’t close your eyes. Either way, you do not have to pray with us.

Finally, you seem to think all of this is some well-orchestrated plot (you refer to “another prong in the assault on the Establishment Clause”) by all faithful people across the land to get a “majority religion into state business.” I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but we can’t even decide amongst ourselves what religion or version of a religion is top of the heap. How would we develop a plot to overthrow the atheists and agnostics when we can’t even decide if the Catholics, the Baptists, the Greek Orthodox, the Orthodox Jews or the Sunni Muslims should get top billing?

Ms. Stewart, read the First Amendment again: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” No one, not the Supreme Court, not the evangelicals, the Catholics or any group is demanding that the government establish a religion. In fact, we want to avoid that as much as you do. We like being able to practice the faith of our choice. We like being able to pray with each other when we can. We want that right protected. And so did our Founding Fathers.


  • Brian Westley

    “We like being able to practice the faith of our choice. We like being able to pray with each other when we can.”

    And how is that done when a city council decides to pray only a prayer that isn’t yours?

    • http://www.acton.org/ Elise Hilton

      You do the same thing you do when you are a guest in another’s house of worship: you are courteous and quiet. You do the same thing you do when you friend’s mother offers boiled muskrat for dinner; you say, “No, thank you.” And by the way, the folks up in Greece, New York have had plenty of non-Christians offer prayers.

      • Brian Westley

        “You do the same thing you do when you are a guest in another’s house of worship”

        Ah, so I’m a GUEST of my own government, not a member. Does this also mean I can be ordered to leave if the “hosts” don’t like me?

        • Marc Vander Maas

          I think she’s referring more to the fact that you are (presumably) an adult, and thus capable of hearing something that you don’t necessarily agree with and responding in a reasonable and mature manner, recognizing that, in certain circumstances, you may be in the minority and that, while the minority has rights, so does the majority.

          But if we’re going to start parsing individual words and phrases, I can say that unless you are a duly elected or appointed member of a public body, you are a guest of said body’s proceedings, and not a member. And yes, you can be removed from the meeting if you, say, cause a disruption or make a nuisance of yourself.

          • Brian Westley

            “you may be in the minority and that, while the minority has rights, so does the majority.”

            If we both have equal rights, there isn’t a vote on which prayer to use. Everyone gets to.

            And “guests” can be removed at the host’s whim, no cause needed.

            And apparently, a whole four non-Christian prayers over more than a decade (and only soon after the lawsuit was filed) is “plenty”.

          • http://www.acton.org/ Elise Hilton

            Dear heavens, you must run in vastly crude circles. I would never heave a guest from my house “no cause needed.” What happens at such a meeting when someone expresses an opinion with which you vastly disagree? Do you toss them out? Or are you able to listen and respond rationally? Your right to NOT pray is not in question nor has it been removed by the Court’s decision. Again, no one is being coerced into praying. If you don’t like it, go outside and have a smoke, chew your nails, or simply gaze at the stars and breathe deeply.

          • Brian Westley

            What happens at such a meeting when someone expresses an opinion with which you vastly disagree?

            Do you know what happens in real life when an atheist speaks at town meetings? Sometimes council members leave; sometimes they give an “extra” invocation because the atheist’s statement doesn’t count.

            And by the way, I was under the impression that government representatives work for the people; “guests” sounds like you consider citizens to be more like serfs serving their masters.

          • http://www.acton.org/ Elise Hilton

            I was using “guest” as a metaphor. I apologize if that was lost on you. Having never attended a town hall meeting, I would not know what the reaction of anyone is to anything. However, in most cases, if one is courteous, clear, and calm, the reaction is the same. Many times, people – both faithful and not – choose to use such public venues as a place to vent, blow off steam, take out their anger on others, and generally be rude. In this case, a person’s statement is likely to get “discounted.”

            Respect for each other goes a long way, doesn’t it?

          • Brian Westley

            Respect for each other goes a long way, doesn’t it?

            Like cloying sarcasm?

          • Marc Vander Maas

            Do you know what happens in real life when an atheist speaks at town meetings? Sometimes council members leave; sometimes they give an “extra” invocation because the atheist’s statement doesn’t count.

            So your position is that when you are elected to a public office, you forfeit your own rights to free expression? You’re somehow shocked that when a person takes a position that is in opposition to the views of an overwhelming majority that they might experience some minor blowback for that? And really, is having people walk out on you when you say something that offends their religious sensibilities really that bad?

            As for your misimpression about the role of citizens vis a vis elected bodies, I refer you to the Sergeant at Arms that I mentioned earlier. Shana, down below, actually posted a helpful video illustrating my point.

          • Brian Westley

            So your position is that when you are elected to a public office, you forfeit your own rights to free expression?

            When public officials are acting in their official capacity, they have to comport with the constitution’s limits on what the state can do, because they are acting as agents of the state in those cases. As an individual, I have a first amendment right of freedom of association, and I can decide to not associate with people on arbitrary or discriminatory grounds, such as not associating with people who aren’t the same race or religion. But I can’t do that as a public official, since I have to serve the entire public, not just a segment.

            So yes, when you are acting in your official capacity, there can be limits to rights you otherwise hold as a private citizen.

            You’re somehow shocked that when a person takes a position that is in opposition to the views of an overwhelming majority that they might experience some minor blowback for that?

            I’m not shocked, I’m pointing out that, in the real world, atheists are often demanded to show respect while not receiving respect in turn.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            When public officials are acting in their official capacity, they have to comport with the constitution’s limits on what the state can do, because they are acting as agents of the state in those cases.

            So if a council member decides that they don’t want to listen to you, what Constitutional limit on the state’s activities are they violating?

            I’m not shocked, I’m pointing out that, in the real world, atheists are often demanded to show respect while not receiving respect in turn.

            Well that’s just unprecedented.

            In any case, the fact that you are made uncomfortable by the giving of a religious invocation before a public meeting does not mean that your rights are being violated, nor does it represent coercion by the state. There may be pressure on you to do what everybody else in the room does, sure, but it’s the social pressure that comes from being the one guy in a group who’s different. It’s the discomfort that comes from being a nonconformist, or something like that. There’s no cop standing behind you prodding you with a nightstick and preparing to bring the force of law down on you for refusing to bow your head in prayer or whatever. Sure, there might be people who give you a sideways glance or decide you’re not the type of person they want to hang around, but… so what? That’s their prerogative, and you can just go on and do what you do. Your rights as a minority are not being violated, and the adult thing to do is to simply respect the fact that as a nation, we have a long history of religious belief, and that the vast majority of people still have a belief in God and don’t have a problem with a short prayer asking for His blessing on the proceedings of government.

          • Brian Westley

            When public officials are acting in their official capacity, they have to comport with the constitution’s limits on what the state can do, because they are acting as agents of the state in those cases.

            So if a council member decides that they don’t want to listen to you, what Constitutional limit on the state’s activities are they violating?

            I give up, what?

            I was referring to actions that government officials can’t do when acting as agents of the state.

            Your rights as a minority are not being violated, and the adult thing to do is to simply respect the fact that as a nation, we have a long history of religious belief, and that the vast majority of people still have a belief in God

            The same can be said about white people. OK with you if the city council opined about how great white people are before each meeting?

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I give up, what?

            they aren’t violating anything.

            The same can be said about white people. OK with you if the city council opined about how great white people are before each meeting?

            I suppose if “white people” were the same thing as “the long history of religious practice and first amendment interpretation in the United States,” then perhaps. But since this is a stupid straw man, I’ll just let it lie there.

          • Brian Westley

            No, it’s not a straw man — a straw man is falsely describing an argument. My question is hypothetical. Learn the difference.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            If we both have equal rights, there isn’t a vote on which prayer to use. Everyone gets to.

            I’m sorry, what? Everyone gets to pray? I thought you didn’t want to pray? It’s not a violation of your rights when you hear someone utter something that you don’t agree with.

            And “guests” can be removed at the host’s whim, no cause needed.

            Yes. Exactly. For the sake of argument, let’s pretend you’re a citizen of Michigan. As a former Michigan legislative staffer, I can assure you that when you go to watch the proceedings of the Michigan Legislature, you are very much a guest in the House or Senate chamber. As a citizen, you certainly have a right to observe the proceedings of the legislature, but you do not have the right to disrupt those proceedings, nor do you have the right to directly participate in them. I’d invite you to head to Lansing next Tuesday for the next scheduled session of the Michigan House of Representatives (I’m partial to the House, as I worked on that side of the legislature). Feel free to stride up the steps to the second floor on the north side of the building and attempt to boldly stride right into the House Chamber. The lady or gentleman in the red coat who will (forcibly, if necessary) prevent you from doing so will be the Sergeant at Arms. You are free to continue your discussion about your status as a “guest” of the legislature with that individual.

            And apparently, a whole four non-Christian prayers over more than a decade (and only soon after the lawsuit was filed) is “plenty”.

            Are you asserting that the Town of Greece required that those chosen to offer an invocation only pray a Christian prayer? Were other faith traditions barred from offering invocations? Are you aware that the vast majority of the citizens of the town of Greece apparently identify their religious affiliation as Christian, thus making the process of finding invocators from other faith traditions somewhat difficult?

          • Brian Westley

            As a citizen, you certainly have a right to observe the proceedings of the legislature, but you do not have the right to disrupt those proceedings

            I’ve never stated or implied that any disruption is going on. Straw man.

            | And apparently, a whole four non-Christian prayers over more than a decade (and only soon after the lawsuit was filed) is “plenty”.

            Are you asserting that the Town of Greece required that those chosen to offer an invocation only pray a Christian prayer?

            No. I’m pointing out that no non-Christians had ever given any invocations until after the lawsuit was filed.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            I’ve never stated or implied that any disruption is going on. Straw man.

            Not really. It’s just an acknowledgement that you are, indeed, a guest when attending such events.

            I’m pointing out that no non-Christians had ever given any invocations until after the lawsuit was filed.

            And when you give me some evidence that the town had a policy preventing non-Christians from giving invocations, then we’ll have something to talk about.

          • Brian Westley

            Not really. It’s just an acknowledgement that you are, indeed, a guest when attending such events.

            I’m not a guest of my government. You can pretend to be a slave if you want.

          • Marc Vander Maas

            [facepalm]

          • Brian Westley

            Yep, you can kowtow to your “betters”, I sure won’t, because they work for me, not the other way around.

    • Shana Danger H
      • Marc Vander Maas

        Yes, the sergeant at arms was called in to restore order and the right of the speaker to exercise his religious freedom was upheld. Your point?

  • http://rdmckinney.blogspot.com/ Roger D. McKinney

    It seems to me that Jesus encouraged us enter our closets to pray, not the city council.