SCOTUS Endorses Government Prayer (updated)

The Supreme Court decision regarding the prayer practices of the town of Greece, New York is bad news for anyone who does not want to experience Christian prayers at government functions.

The real problem with this decision is that its overall philosophy moves further away from an endorsement test – the idea that the government should not endorse a specific religion – and towards a coercion test instead, verging on the idea that government can endorse religion without coercing citizens to follow that religion. Moreover, a couple justices took the opportunity to say they would like to see coercion defined even more narrowly, meaning that government would have an even wider scope to push religion. See more specific discussion at SCOTUSblog.

It is not an accident that justices who have experienced the least disadvantage in their lives tend to see coercion narrowly and don’t have a problem with endorsement, while those who have wider life experiences are more likely to think that endorsement slides into coercion and that both are a bad thing. People in the majority – in this case the religious majority – have not been subject to the myriad slings and arrows of everyday life that make one more thing, like your government expecting you to have the strength to withstand public, officially sanctioned disparagement, just too much to bear.

Specifically, this decision is a bad thing for Wiccans because to be realistic, in my lifetime we will not be on an equal footing with Christians, and this decision is all about accommodating the majority rather than protecting the minority. In the meantime, we run a serious risk of being used as cover – call it the “I Have a Wiccan Friend” defense. In other words, if a town council has to get a Wiccan one week out of the year (and a Jew once and a Buddhist once) so that they can have their exclusionary prayers to Jesus the other 49 weeks, they’ll do it, and those 49 weeks will do way more to reinforce the Christian sense of hegemony (we own this town – look at the meetings!) than that one week of pretend tolerance will.

Make no mistake, that one-week-a-year, or any similar plan, is tolerance, not inclusion. I have argued before and will argue again that there is no such thing as a fully inclusive prayer that covers all citizens, so the only truly inclusive option is no prayer at all.

Moreover, it looks to me at first glance like this decision’s details gave small governments a long list of ways to tailor their tolerance so that it’s not too burdensome on the Christian majority. It doesn’t seem like there’s any real burden for the government to be inclusive by any standard, for example. Saying that local governments may be run “informally” is a loophole big enough to drive the “Oh, it’s an accident that we forgot to invite any rabbis” truck right through.

EDITED: Originally, my last paragraph read:

Personally, I will continue to advocate for less appearance of government endorsing religion for any religion, mine included. I would not give an opening prayer at a government meeting even if I was specifically invited to do so. Others may make different decisions depending on circumstances, but please think carefully before participating in this misguided encroachment of government-sponsored religion.


I am hearing some good arguments about why we should engage in exactly the kind of prayer that I firmly believe on fundamental principles should not be happening. I am not particularly swayed by the argument from equal misery: If they’re going to make us miserable, I am not convinced that we should make them miserable too. I am much more convinced by the argument that trying to participate in public prayer and being turned away could be – in the long term, on the order of decades – the foundation of a new case to get this crap overturned.

In the meantime and the near term, there is always the possibility that a sectarian Wiccan or Hellenistic or Druid prayer can be so repulsive to a Christian majority that the Christian majority decides not to hold the public prayers any longer. That would be similar to the attempt to install a Satanist monument in Oklahoma to “balance” the Ten Commandments monument.

I am not yet convinced that the potential harm done to others in the meantime is worth it, especially because of the risk of being used for “cover” in the way I describe above. I am willing to be convinced otherwise.

I don’t know how to balance the kind of activism for equal recognition of Wicca and Paganisms that I see going on in many places (military, prisons) with using Wicca as a weapon to get religion removed. How do I take action and try to communicate the subtext “Well, you could just not allow prayers here,” in one context, and in another context take an almost identical action with the subtext, “No, really, take me seriously, Wiccan prisoners have a real need for ministry?” How do we avoid having the kind of wiggle-arounds that are going to be used in prayer-giving contexts (oh, we’ll have everyone in on a rotation, that’ll work) applied to other contexts to marginalize us even further?

As I said, I’m willing to hear further arguments. I’m deeply torn about this matter and expect to spend some time contemplating while I’m away at Fertile Ground Gathering this weekend. That means I won’t be here to moderate comments or respond. We’ve got time. Let’s ground and center and think and talk together before we act.

School Prayer: Do conservatives really want what they might get?

Today I called the office of a Virginia senator and told his staffer that if the senator didn’t want me to open a high school math class by praying to the goddess Kali, he ought to take my advice and vote against the bill under consideration.

Let me explain. The American Civil Liberties Union in Virginia periodically sends out alerts advising members that they may want to lobby members of the Virginia General Assembly (state government) on certain bills. One such came up recently: HJ 593, misleadingly titled “Amending the Virginia Constitution Concerning Freedom of Religion.” You can read the ACLU position. Basically, there is  no good reason for this bill to be written the way it is (freedom of religion is already guaranteed in the Virginia state constitution, thanks to Thomas Jefferson), but there is very good reason to believe that this bill is an attempt to confuse the issue of prayer in public schools, with the primary goal of letting Christians pray publicly, such as during classes, over the PA, or at graduation, and to do so “in Jesus’ name.”

Brief tangent into Constitutional law (please feel free to skip): The First Amendment states “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Those two clauses, the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause, are often seen as being in tension with each other. This is a false tension; in fact, the requirement that Congress not establish a religion is necessary to allow the free exercise. Only people who want their division of religion – their denomination or sub-church – to establish theocratic rule are afraid of the Establishment Clause limiting their rights under the Free Exercise Clause. Since the public schools are paid for by government, their actions can reasonably be read as an establishment of religion. Thus, the Supreme Court has struck a delicate balance in numerous precedents where, roughly, students are allowed to pray any way they like, but no one is allowed to lead someone else in prayer, especially not teachers or school employees, and especially not in a situation where that person seems to be speaking for the school. (Thus, even a student cannot lead a “voluntary” prayer over the PA or at graduation, in most circumstances.) Part of the problem here is that students can’t easily opt out of prayer over the PA or at graduation or even in their classrooms; since they are to some extent compelled to be there, it is especially important that they not be compelled to participate in prayer, so stricter limitations are placed on actions that might be perceived as leading prayer among those compelled to be there.

The purpose of this bill in the Virginia General Assembly seems to be to challenge the Supreme Court ruling on specific points by asserting that individuals have particular rights. Those individuals have those rights, but when they act in a particular role or in a particular sphere, their rights are restricted. If you’re a public school teacher, you aren’t supposed to push your religion on your students (who are compelled to be there, after all, while you are acting as an agent of the government). This is true whether your religion is Christianity, Judaism, Wicca, Hinduism, or anything else. As described above, as far as we can tell, the goal of this bill is to allow teachers to pray (while giving lip service to their students not being required to join in), especially with prayers “in Jesus’ name,” and to allow students to pray as representatives of the school over the PA or at graduations.

As the ACLU suggested, I emailed specific senators to argue against the proposed amendment. The reply I received from one senator’s office read as follows:

Thank you for letting me know of your opposition to HJ 593.

However, the Resolution does not address the subject you spoke of in your letter to me.  Specifically, it amends current free exercise of religion provisions of the Virginia Constitution to permit prayer and the recognition of religious beliefs, heritage, and traditions on public property, including public schools in order to secure further the people’s right to acknowledge God.  The amendment also prohibits (i) the composing of school prayers by the Commonwealth and its political subdivisions, and (ii) requiring persons to join in prayer or other religious activity.  The current free exercise of religion provisions of the Virginia Constitution mirror those in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and provide for the free exercise of religion and prohibit compelling persons to participate in religious activity.

The problem is that the courts have held that when we pray publicly, we do not have a right to refer to deity as we might wish, that is what has made this amendment necessary.

Please feel free to call or write on this or any other subject of interest to you.  I can best represent you by hearing from you and look forward to our continued service together.


Stephen H. Martin



Check out that third paragraph. This reply is so disingenuous it’s almost funny.

I was so upset about this that I took advantage of the conveniently attached phone number to call the senator’s office. I pointed out to the staffer that since this bill seems intent on defending all individuals’ “right to refer to deity as we might wish,” that would imply defending my right to refer to deity as the Goddess, or specifically as the goddess Athena, or Hecate, or Demeter, or Kali.

Since this specifies prayer on school property, this bill would seem to be trying to establish a right for me to stand up in front of the high school math class that I teach (note that I am a certified teacher and could very well be in this position) and offer such a prayer. I would, of course, have to point out that students aren’t compelled to pray along with me, but they’d have a darn hard time avoiding the fact that I’m praying. Which is why the Supreme Court has put in place the restrictions that it has. Which is why the Virginia state government shouldn’t be trying to challenge those restrictions.

I agree with the Supreme Court. If I were a high school teacher, I would have no business praying in front of my class, whether I’m Christian, Wiccan, or anything else. But this attempt to allow school prayer in inappropriate circumstances seems like a way for the senator to support the “rights” of his religious majority. If the senator isn’t going to support those “rights” when it comes to my religious minority, he should oppose the bill.

The staffer took notes and said that she would deliver my comments to the senator. I hope she does. I hope that the specter of one of his children being led by a teacher in prayer to a deity he doesn’t believe in is enough to help him understand viscerally how this bill and similar actions by the Religious Right have a deeply disturbing impact on religious minorities on a regular basis. Since it looks like this bill has died in committee – thankfully! – that may be a moot point.

On the other hand, though, if this bill was passed, the Religious Right might come to regret it as they have come to regret passing the Equal Access Act. Originally designed to allow students to have Christian clubs, the act also allows gay rights clubs and atheist clubs. I believe the technical term for that is that they were “hoist on their own petard.”

Still, we need to fight efforts like this. It’s not enough to let them backfire. I don’t want Wiccan children being forced to sit uncomfortably through teachers or peers leading groups in prayer “in Jesus’ name,” just as much as I don’t want to impose my beliefs on others who disagree with me. If it takes arguments like asking a senator whether he’d want his children led in prayer to Kali, then those are the arguments we need to make.