Stillwater News Press

Opinion

May 9, 2014

E.J. DIONNE: Prayer and freedom of religion

STILLWATER, Okla. — To understand why religious freedom matters, put yourself in the position of someone who is part of a minority faith tradition in a town or nation that overwhelmingly adheres to a different creed. Then judge public practices by how they would affect the hypothetical you.

This act of empathy helps explain why religious liberty in the United States is such a gift. It is based, as Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan wrote in her dissent to Monday's public prayer decision, on “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

Religious liberty will not disappear because of the court's 5-4 ruling that the government of Greece, N.Y., could begin its town board meetings with prayers – even though, as Kagan put it, “month in and month out for over a decade,” they were “steeped in only one faith,” in this case Christianity.

 The court ruled that the government of Greece had not violated anyone's rights. "Ceremonial prayer," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority, "... willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgement of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs."

But the court majority not only failed the empathy test but also lost the opportunity Kagan offered to find a balance that would both honor religion's role in American public life and safeguard the rights of those whose faith commitments diverge from the majority's.  

Nonbelievers (and others uneasy with any link between religion and government) might fairly contend that putting an end to all such public religious invocations is the simplest solution to these difficulties. But Kagan was seeking a middle way. She thus rejected “a bright separationist line.” A town hall, she said, “need not become a religion-free zone.” Instead, “pluralism and inclusion ... can satisfy the constitutional requirement of neutrality.”

In the years since the court's 1962 decision banning government-directed prayer in public schools, we have engaged in a fierce culture war over the role of religion in our public institutions. The school prayer decision has properly stood because it sought to protect against a form of government coercion. But friends of religion have charged that driving all vestiges of faith from every other corner of the public square was itself exclusionary behavior.

Kagan's pluralism principle would avoid this by allowing citizens of all faiths to be heard, and ways could be found to apply it to nonbelievers. It lays the groundwork for a compromise that will be imperative as immigration and declining affiliation render our country more religiously diverse. Religion would continue to have a place in our public institutions, but they would have the obligation to respect differences over "profound belief and deep meaning."

In contrast to a legal regime insufficiently alive to the rights of minorities and dissenters, Kagan's approach would provide religion with a public role at once more stable and more sustainable. Its day will come.

E.J. Dionne is a columnist for the Washington Post.

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