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Supreme Court’s invocation prayer decision affects local practices

 

Lamar W. Hankins
 
The US Supreme Court has now given public officials in the US clear permission to promote and propagandize for the religion of their choice (mostly Christian), as well as religion in general, while performing their public duties. Five justices, all Catholic (one other Catholic opposed the decision) made up the majority in Town of Greece v. Galloway, decided on May 5, 2014. 
Justice Kennedy wrote the majority opinion, basing the decision on what the majority called the country’s legislative tradition of ceremonial prayer before the start of Congress and some state legislatures. Kennedy and the majority failed to appreciate the important differences between local governmental bodies, like city councils and commissioners courts, and the state legislatures and Congress. 
In these latter cases, opening prayers are directed to the legislators and not to the general public. With local governments, however, the prayers are addressed to those in attendance, as well as to the public officials making the decisions. In many cases, the person presiding at the meeting or giving the prayer instructs all in attendance to participate by standing, bowing heads, and often joining in saying “amen” at the end. Sometimes, public officials encourage participation by joining in the prayer themselves, which can be heard through the public address system.
Justice Kagan, who wrote a dissenting opinion for the four justices who disagreed with the majority’s reasoning, pointed out these differences, but the majority swept the differences under their judicial robes. That majority thought that no decision-maker would be influenced by a lack of religious piety shown by someone who was appearing before the body to ask for a favorable decision on some issue. They were unwilling to consider the very real fears that such people have that they will not be treated impartially unless they demonstrate religious views approved by the public officials. I know many people with just such fears.
The majority’s reliance on tradition has special significance for the City of San Marcos and the County of Hays. Hays County was founded in 1848, followed three years later by the founding of San Marcos. There has not been a long tradition in either government body of government-sponsored prayers to begin their meetings. 
 
 
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