If you think the Supreme Court’s ruling on public prayer is an unqualified win for Christians, you might want to reconsider.
On May 5, the United States Supreme Court ruled that “ceremonial” prayers opening government meetings do not violate the Constitution’s First Amendment.
The justices split 5-4 into the familiar conservative versus liberal wings, with Justice Anthony Kennedy providing the deciding vote and writing the majority opinion.
Kennedy noted that prayers at public events enjoy a long and accepted history in this country.
He also stated that these “ceremonial” prayers are part of the pomp-and-circumstance of government proceedings and are meant to lend an air of solemnity and gravitas to the occasion.
My own community of Pittsylvania County, Virginia, along with many others, will find much to applaud in today’s Supreme Court ruling.
Several months ago, our local board of supervisors faced a similar challenge when it was sued for allowing sectarian prayers to open their meetings.
Now that the community of Greece, New York, has been vindicated, many will believe a celebration is in order.
But before we join the party, shouldn’t Baptists everywhere be concerned with the ruling’s fine print?
Historically, Baptists have struggled to keep government out of religious practice.
However, with the Supreme Court’s ruling, the majority of justices not only redefined prayer as part of the ceremony of civic life, they also set limits on its place in the public square.
Kennedy referred to the prayers in question as “ceremonial.” In the written opinion, he states, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”
Do we as Baptists define public prayer as part of the ceremony of the moment? Is civic prayer a public protocol like the Pledge of Allegiance or “Hail to the Chief?”
Or do we Baptists, along with other Christians, define prayer as the invocation of divine presence, blessing or guidance?
Furthermore, I have never heard a Baptist or other religious leader suggest that the purpose of public prayer is to acknowledge “religious leaders and the institutions they represent.”
But Kennedy writes that this is the acceptable “purpose and effect” of civic prayer.
If that were not enough to cause us concern, he draws clear lines defining the acceptable content of public prayers.
Kennedy writes, “In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content. The relevant constraint derives from its place at the opening of legislative sessions, where it is meant to lend gravity to the occasion and reflect values long part of the Nation’s heritage.”
“Prayer that is solemn and respectful in tone, that invites lawmakers to reflect upon shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing, serves that legitimate function,” he continues.
Kennedy concludes with the following qualification: “If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”
In other words, civic prayer has to fit a pattern of acceptability as defined by the Supreme Court.
This test of acceptability includes prayer’s place in the opening ceremony, its “tone,” its content and its purpose.
While polite etiquette might rule out prayer that is not “respectful in tone,” Kennedy also ruled out prayer meant to call lawmakers to confession and repentance.
The prophet Elijah would find himself unwelcomed to offer prayer in Greece, New York, just like he was unwelcomed to offer judgment on King Ahab and Queen Jezebel in his day.
Before we celebrate a victory for prayer, we need to ask ourselves as pastors and religious leaders if we find it acceptable to craft our public prayers by criteria defined by the Supreme Court.
With the Supreme Court’s ruling, Christians are now in an ironic position: We have the right to offer public prayers that have no heavenly purpose.
Chuck Warnock is pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Virginia.