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Editorial: Prayer ruling tries to walk tightrope

Prayers said before a government meeting do not violate the U.S. Constitution, a 5-4 majority of the Supreme Court ruled the other day.

The justices may have thought that this decision settled the issue — that’s true in theory — but in practice there still remain too many opportunities to fall off this legal tightrope.

The issue isn’t listening to a prayer, which has been part of the fabric of public meetings — including sessions of both chambers of Congress — since the founding of this republic. As Justice Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion, “From the earliest days of the Nation, these invocations have been addressed to assemblies comprising many different creeds.

“These ceremonial prayers,” Kennedy went on to say, “strive for the idea that people of many faiths may be united in a com­munity of tolerance and devotion. Even those who disagree as to religious doctrine may find common ground in the desire to show respect for the divine in all aspects of their lives and being.”

What the justices failed to address — and indeed cannot really solve — is that the respect necessary to create the balance that should be there when it comes to such prayers is too often missing. That balance must continue to respect the fact that the Constitution allows no establishment of religion or adoption of a particular denomination by any government.

The case stems from Greece, N.Y., where the town council decided in 1999 to replace an opening moment of silence with an invitation to clergy in the area to provide the prayer. As it turned out, it was predominantly Christian clergy who showed up and prayed based upon their own set of beliefs. Two residents, one Jewish and one atheist, sued the city, arguing the First Amendment’s restriction on government establishment of religion was being violated.

Had the community kept the idea of balance and respect in mind, then Greece’s municipal officials would have made it a point to see that all faiths were given a chance to offer a prayer from the beginning.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen until the lawsuit was filed against the city.

Those leading the prayer, should be mindful, too, that the beliefs of their particular denomination or faith may not be shared by all. Also, there should be respect, too, by all for each other’s faith.

Justice Elena Kagan was trying to address this point in her dissent. “ ... I think the Town of Greece’s prayer practices violate that norm of religious equality — the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

Perhaps what Kagan also said should be in the minds of one and all. “ ... government must take especial care to ensure that the prayers (at meetings) will seek to include, rather than serve to divide.”

That would allow for the balance and respect that this calls for.

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