Supreme Court ruling doesn't lessen clergy's need to be inclusive in public prayer

www.bethyam.orgMay 23, 2014 

Supreme Court Town Board Prayer

People walk on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on April 26.

JACQUELYN MARTIN — File, The Associated Press

The U.S. Supreme Court recently weighed in on whether clergy's speech should be restricted when delivering invocations at government meetings that are open to the public.

In the case of the Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, the town can continue its practice of invocations without establishing any rules in regard to being sensitive to minority faith traditions.

The majority decision, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, explained, "To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.

"A rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town's current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact," he wrote.

In other words, the government has no business telling clergy what their prayers could or couldn't say. If government has to establish rules for giving an invocation at a council meeting, then that could potentially represent a government encroachment in the expression of freedom of religion.

Kennedy concluded that the only way the court might have ruled for the plaintiff is if there was "a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize or betray an impermissible government purpose." Those kinds of criterion could very well violate the Constitution.

After the court handed down its decision, I was invited to deliver the invocation and benediction during commencement exercises at University of South Carolina Beaufort. As I prepared both prayers, I sensed that almost all in attendance would not belong to my faith tradition.

There might have been some there who might have preferred a prayer leader closer to their own faith tradition. Likewise, there could have been others who would have chosen not to have any religious prayers. Yet, we are a nation that reveres God, and by having clergy deliver an opening prayer one hopes the right tone is struck, one that says the event is sacred as well as secular.

The underlying issue with the Supreme Court case was not about stopping the grand American tradition of clergy giving prayers to open meetings. Rather, it was to establish an ethos that clergy should be less concerned about representing their own beliefs and more concerned that their language strikes a balance between the duty to create a sacred moment and saying a prayer on behalf of others who might not share their beliefs.

The problem should not be about restricting freedom of religious speech, rather, the challenge should be to encourage and expect clergy to be sensitive and exercise responsible religious speech.

Whatever happened to being ecumenical? Don't clergy have a responsibility to stretch themselves when they are asked to participate in a prayer occasion like a town council meeting or the board of education? Why can't government bodies issue a simple guideline for inclusiveness?

Let's not forget that the podium at a city council meeting, for example, is not a pulpit.

So who is it all about? Isn't this about the meeting attendees who are supposed to be embraced by the heartfelt words that create an ecumenical tent through the prayer?

This issue belongs to the longstanding and ongoing conflict in American culture regarding how high the wall separating religion from the state should be. Some Supreme Courts will build up that wall while other courts, for example, such as the current one, choose to lower it.

The issue is not freedom of speech, but responsible speech. Public institutions should send the message that being ecumenical is a good value and that clergy at public or state-sponsored events are expected to step outside the box when they are praying on behalf of people who belong to many different religions.

I urge clergy to ask themselves, "Am I betraying my own faith tradition if I write an invocation in a way that does not make reference to the particular beliefs of my faith?"

Answering this question will demonstrate just how far we have come and how far we need to progress. Yes, clergy always represent their own faith tradition no matter what they do, but adapting their prayers into a broader framework to deliver an invocation at a state-sponsored meeting does not automatically mean diminishing their own integrity or that of the faith they hold dearly. On the contrary, it may at the end of the day, garner even more respect for them and their faith tradition.

Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.

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