Defining Moments: How Language Shapes Our Lives

The Supreme Court’s redefinition of prayer

sprovost@thetribunenews.comMay 28, 2014 

In its recent decision to allow sectarian prayers before civic meetings, the Supreme Court served up a prodigious piece of irony that some advocates of prayer ought to find offensive.

On the surface, the ruling seems like a victory for prayer advocates. Written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, it upholds the practice of offering prayers at public meetings. But there’s an important catch: It only does so by redefining the nature of prayer as “ceremonial.”

Kennedy seems to be saying that such prayers are acceptable because they’re not really prayers. They’re just for show. And his reasoning becomes even more problematic when he declares that the substance of the prayer is unimportant, that “a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.”

Is Kennedy so intent on protecting something called “prayer” that he’s willing to redefine it in order to do so? It seems so. As far as the law is concerned, at least according to Kennedy, prayer is merely ceremonial. Content isn’t important. Under this rationale, one could be singing “Bohemian Rhapsody” or reciting a recipe for duck a l’orange, and it would be just as valid (legally speaking) as the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer.

Spiritually? Well, that’s another matter.

Christian invocations are mentioned here because Christian prayer was particularly at issue in this case. Those who brought the case to court objected that the city of Greece, N.Y., consistently opened its meetings with a sectarian Christian prayer — so consistently, in fact, that every minister offering up a prayer between 1999 and 2007 was a Christian.

One has to assume that these Christians were offering up heartfelt prayers and believed very strongly, Kennedy’s reasoning notwithstanding, that the content was important. Jesus of Nazareth had this to say about something that sounds an awful lot like Kennedy’s ceremonial concept of prayer: “When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”

To him, it wasn’t just ceremonial: In order to be meaningful, prayer can’t be just for show.

Kennedy, on the other hand, wants to have it both ways. (What was that about hypocrisy?)

If prayer is ceremonial rather than religious, he can argue that it doesn’t violate the First Amendment’s establishment clause. But in doing so, he strips it of its meaning, of its very essence. In fact, it must be sincerely religious in order to be meaningful to a believer.

Many argue that the separation of church and state preserves the rights of those who practice minority faiths or no faith at all, and they’re right. But this same separation preserves the rights of those in the majority to practice their faith with integrity, without government interference. Does a prayer that’s merely “ceremonial” qualify as a prayer of integrity? It’s a question worth asking.

Kennedy, of course, isn’t an arbiter of Christian teachings or behavior.

He can’t stop Christian ministers from offering a sincere prayer before a civic meeting by simply declaring it’s only ceremonial. But this sounds almost like a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy for public prayer: You can be sincere, but you’ve got to act like you’re just being ceremonial.

In another dose of irony, Kennedy could have avoided this whole mess by taking a cue from the Bible, specifically, the book of 1 Kings. In the third chapter, two women appear before King Solomon, each of them laying claim to the same baby. Solomon suggests that the baby be cut in half and split between them, but he doesn’t intend to actually do so; he merely wants to discern the truth of the matter.

Kennedy’s solution to the prayer conundrum is to actually cut the baby in half and hope it lives.

Bad move.

Either content matters or it doesn’t. Either these prayers are profoundly meaningful or they’re merely ceremonial. You can’t have it both ways. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect Supreme Court justices to be quite as smart as a king reputed to be the wisest man in history. But it’s not too much to hope that they could have done a little better than this. 

Steve Provost  is a Tribune copy editor. Reach him at sprovost@thetribunenews.com.

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