A 'frustrating, disingenuous' Supreme Court ruling

Law professor says decision allows for religious preference framers opposed

May 06, 2014|Dan Rodricks

Let me present a hypothetical situation that gets to the heart of the Supreme Court's unfortunate decision on prayer at local government meetings. I'll make the setting Carroll County because that's where elected officials eagerly invoke Jesus Christ at meetings of the Board of County Commissioners.

Let's say you own a piece of property in some increasingly suburbanized section of the county. You want it rezoned so you can build a convenience store and gas station. You have to convince the commissioners that the area has changed enough to warrant rezoning. On advice of counsel, you attend the meeting to make a personal appeal to the commissioners.

Let's say you happen to be Jewish, or Muslim, something that isn't Christian. Maybe you wear a yarmulke or turban, a kufi or headscarf.

So you've come to the county commissioners, plat in hand, and you hear one of them, Robin Frazier, launch into a prayer — the same one she recited at a commissioners meeting in March:

"Oh Lord our God, most mighty and merciful Father, I, thine unworthy creature and servant, do once more approach thy presence."

Unless you're offended at the choice of "Father" over "Mother," nothing wrong so far. Here's more:

"Though not worthy to appear before thee, because of my natural corruptions and the many sins and transgressions which I have committed against thy divine majesty; yet I beseech thee, for the sake of him in whom thou art well pleased, the Lord Jesus Christ."

Ah, there it is: The first reference to J.C. Though you have a high opinion of Jesus of Nazareth, he's not your savior. But you let it slide. What choice do you have?

A little later, there's a reference to the Holy Spirit: "Let me have all my directions from thy Holy Spirit and success from thy bountiful hand."

You listen to Frazier go on and on, and maybe it's making you uncomfortable, maybe not. Maybe you just figure this is the way they do things in Carroll County. You're there to conduct business, and you're wondering when the religious prelude ends. Then, suddenly, you hear Frazier's big finish:

"Let thy blessings guide this day and forever through Jesus Christ in whose blessed form of prayer I conclude my weak petitions."

The actual meeting begins. It's your turn to make a direct appeal to Frazier and the other commissioners to grant your zoning request. The Christian prayer might have made you uncomfortable. You wonder if you'll get a fair hearing.

And, in the good ole U.S.A., you shouldn't be made to feel that way. Your faith — and the faith of elected officials — should have nothing to do with whether you get to build a Wawa.

That's one of the reasons the Supreme Court's decision about prayer at public meetings is a bad one: It allows a government to express favor for one religion over others.

In a 5-4 vote, the court held that the town of Greece, in upstate New York, did not violate the Constitution by starting public meetings with prayers that were almost always Christian. The ruling paves the way for Frazier and the Carroll commissioners to resume prayers invoking Christ before their public meetings. (In March, a federal judge in Baltimore had ordered the commissioners to stop doing just that.)

"It's a frustrating and disingenuous decision," says Michael Meyerson, the University of Baltimore law professor whose 2012 book, "Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America," was cited in the court's majority opinion. While pleased with that, Meyerson noted that the quote from his book was "taken out of context and [used] by the wrong side."

His point: The Founding Fathers and framers of the Constitution — Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and others — might have mentioned a specific religion when speaking among themselves, but when they addressed the public they were "incredibly sensitive" not to appear to favor any particular creed.

While prayer might be part of the opening ceremonies of Congress or a state legislature, Meyerson says, the court should have seen such bodies as distinct from local government. There, as in my hypothetical, a citizen makes a direct, eyeball-to-eyeball appeal to a board that has espoused a religious preference. That's very different from ceremonial prayer offered by and for a larger representative body, Meyerson says.

Mark Graber, professor of constitutional law at the University of Maryland, also disagreed with the Greece ruling. "If the lawmakers want to pray before legislating," he says, "they can pray in their cars, they can meet in private homes, or they can pray silently. The public prayer, particularly sectarian public prayer, is clearly designed to communicate a message of endorsement for religion, prayer and Christianity."

There's something else, something offensively in-your-face about the whole thing — the piety and the insistence on prayer of a certain creed at meetings of a government body that's supposed to conduct the public's business without prejudice. It might now be constitutional, but it never struck me as particularly Christian.

drodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks' column appears each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday. He is the host of "Midday" on WYPR-FM.

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