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November 10, 2013

American flag with “Thanks” (“Merci”) at a grave in Normandy American Cemetery, Source Wikipedia (PD-Self)

As of this writing, the US Supreme Court is considering a challenge to legislative prayer.

Legislative Prayer and National Character

Thirty years ago, in Marsh v. Chambers, the Supreme Court ruled that legislative prayer was an expression of the national character, supported by historic precedent [1].   The argument being made in Greece v. Galloway is that the selection of Christian prayers over non-Christian to open town council meetings amounts to the establishment of a state-sponsored religion, prohibited by the First Amendment to the US Constitution [2].

Not all of us are historians or Constitutional scholars.  We do though have a stake in the outcome of this case.  Greece affords the Court – and, consequently, all of us – an opportunity to reassess whether the American character has changed sufficiently to ban prayer at public gatherings (identifiably Christian prayer, in particular).

Formulaic Approach

Few would argue for a system under which Christians – including among them Baptists, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, Eastern Orthodox, and Quakers – Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Scientologists, Wiccans, and the rest be heard in turn, according to a numeric formula based on the proportion of adherents to each sect in a locality or some other criteria.

That kind of nightmarish approach would require review by a governmental entity of public prayers for content to verify their religion of origin. It would give rise to endless wrangling over the proportion of each religion in a given locality, and in all likelihood the gerrymandering of localities, themselves.

Needless to say, such an approach would amount to an outrageous intrusion on conscience, and a vast expansion of governmental power – anathema to the Founding Fathers, and the very outcome the First Amendment was intended to avoid.

Dangers of Secularity

With so many faiths in existence, secularity, insofar as the complete exclusion of religion from public life, except as a historical footnote, may seem the least objectionable option. Secularity appears on its face neutral.

And America does have a secular “morality” as the outgrowth of Judeo Christian values.  Racial equality, gender equality, justice, the rule of law, and freedom are all biblical concepts [3]. Moses is recognized as a pre-eminent lawgiver.

Once, however, religion is eliminated from public discourse, there remains only the state as an authority on moral and ethical issues.  Germany’s Nazi party quickly filled that void with perverted values of its own [4].

The martyrdom of Thomas More – the patron saint of lawyers, incidentally – demonstrated that conscience cannot be legislated.  Greece v. Galloway may not be cause for hysteria.  As Christians, however, we must be aware of the times in which we live.

Be sober-minded; be watchful.  Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5: 8).

[1] If Marsh v. Chambers is overruled by Greece v. Galloway, public nativity scenes, memorial crosses, and Ten Commandments displays are likely to come under renewed fire.

[2] A lower court had held that the content of prayer was irrelevant, since there was no intention to proselytize or insult other faiths.

[3] Biblical support for racial equality may be found at Acts 10: 34-35, Romans 2: 9-11, Galatians 3:28, and Colossians 3: 11; for gender equality at Genesis 1: 27, and again Galatians 3: 28; for justice at Psalms 37: 27-29 and 58: 11, Proverbs 21: 12, Isaiah 30: 18, and Micah 6: 8; for the rule of law at Romans 7: 7, 13: 1, and 13: 7-9, 1 Timothy 1: 8-10, and 1 John 3: 4; for freedom at Exodus 6: 2-7, Isaiah 58: 6-7, John 8: 32 and 36, Romans 8: 21, and Galatians 5: 13. Due to space constraints not all relevant verses have been cited here.

[4] Historians generally agree that Hitler planned to eradicate Christianity after WWII.


  1. Really appreciated your post. I agree that if religion is eliminated in public discourse, than that sets us up for social and moral disaster. Absolute truth no longer becomes the barometer for which to judge. Thanks.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful response. Belief is increasingly viewed as a matter of opinion, not a search after truth. The very concept of objective truth is being lost. As Christians, we must continue to bear witness to the Truth, despite the rising tide of ignorance.

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