The problem is that the town of Greece, N.Y., wasn’t opening with a generic prayer addressed to “God,” “the Almighty,” or “the Supreme Being.” It as an Easter prayer, stressing “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” in a town with synagogues and mosques within its borders.
I’ve been listening to a history of the English Civil War, which was fought in part over religious establishment. Fighting war over religion, particularly civil war, is absolutely insane. The Founders were wise to establish religious freedom, not just because it protects individual rights but also because it keeps the state from getting ripped apart with ridiculous disputes about nothing. Let everybody worship whatever God they want, in whatever way they want, and as long as everybody pays their taxes and obeys the law, everything runs smoothly. The government keeps the roads paved and the trash picked up, and leaves people’s souls to other authorities.
It’s best to be loose about church-state separation. For example, Christmas decorations in City Hall are technically a flagrant violation — but what the heck, it makes people happy and does nobody any harm, particularly if City Hall also makes some acknowledgement of other people’s religious celebration. But opening a city council meeting with an Easter benediction goes too far.
Amazingly, the Supreme Court is currently made up of six Catholics and three Jews, two groups who have historically suffered religious persecution, the Catholics in the US, Jews seemingly everywhere else in the world.
The Founders—so backward in their attitudes on race—launched the republic on the basis of religious tolerance. Benjamin Franklin believed in prayer but stressed the importance of ecumenical “public religion.” Thomas Jefferson did not include his service as president of the United States on his tombstone but requested that his authorship of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom be included. James Madison believed that “religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.” With God unmentioned in the Constitution, the Founders set a course that allowed, over Madison’s objections, for chaplains offering prayers at public meetings. But the tradition has favored deistic references (“God,” “the Almighty,” “the Supreme Being”) over sectarian specifics. “The Founders wanted to keep it general because theological disputes led to political upheaval,” says Jon Meacham, author of American Gospel.
In his majority opinion, Kennedy tried to argue that the court was merely upholding that ecumenical tradition. “Willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs,” he wrote. But the prayers before town meetings in Greece, New York, were not about a “higher power,” which is a standard and unobjectionable prayer that would not have merited an appeal to the Supreme Court. Instead, the ministers in that New York town—who not once gave way to rabbis or imams, though they had Jewish and Muslim congregations nearby—opened a public meeting by stressing, “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength, vitality, and confidence from his resurrection at Easter…”