COMMENTARY: There's little to celebrate in Supreme Court's prayer decision

By C. Welton Gaddy| comments | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
News Politics Prayer and Sacraments

c. 2014 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON (RNS) The great rejoicing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on public prayer reminded me of the infamous line from an officer who commented on the destruction of a village during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it!”

There isn’t much to celebrate in the high court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway to allow sectarian prayers to be spoken in all kinds of public meetings. The big loser in this judicial decision was prayer itself—its uniqueness and its authenticity.

This most recent decision from the court, like many before it, has provided a “win” for conservative forces. But it comes at the price of a broadside against (if not a compromise of) religion. Why? Because prayer is a spiritual practice that’s better defined theologically rather than politically or legally.

Frankly, the 5-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway dealt a legal blow to the authenticity of the spiritual practice of prayer. It’s little more than a ruling on the legality of making social, political, and governmental statements (not personal prayers) in civic sessions in order to be heard by those assembled rather than by God.

For me and many people of faith, prayer is a personal communication with God. Communion with God takes place at a level in the soul, spirit and mind of an individual that is untouchable by government or any other external force. A proper theological, spiritual understanding of prayer leads to the conclusion that nothing—no other person or institution—can either prevent a person from praying or force a person to pray.

Attempts to infuse government proceedings with public prayers are risky at best, and they are always vulnerable to prostitution and manipulation. That is why in the scriptures of many religious traditions, including Christianity, public prayer is discouraged. Jesus even found it offensive when the “hypocrites” prayed on the street corner to draw attention to themselves:  “When you pray,” he cautioned his followers, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Authentic prayer is not about impressing or instructing other people.

That’s not to say there is no place for communal prayer. Some segments of Judaism, for example, require a “minyan”—a quorum of 10 people—for some observances, including reading the Torah. Muslims often say their daily prayers in groups. Communal prayer in a house of worship, however, is very different from a public prayer in a civic setting.

There is one form of public prayer that is distinct from others: a prayer articulated in a house of worship as a contribution to worship, whether spoken spontaneously or scripted or as part of a liturgical reading. My “pastoral prayers” offered in public worship are explicitly directed to God—with the awareness that my overheard communion with God may provide help for others wanting to pray, assure people that they are being prayed for or be embraced by other worshippers who join my prayers and make them their prayers.

Believe me, the kind of public prayers at the center of Greece v. Galloway hardly qualify as such personal and spiritual acts of communion with God. I have listened to public prayers in school board meetings, city council gatherings and legislative sessions. Most frequently, they are statements of public opinion or imperatives for civic action rather than an individual’s honest communion with God.

The high court made clear that its decision does not protect public prayers that negate others’ religions or convey incivility. In other words, the court affirmed that prayers must meet its definition of civil standards. I favor that part of the ruling, but, honestly, I do not want a Supreme Court justice – or anybody else in government — trying to define what I can or I cannot say in my private communion with God.

Every time we submit a sacred act to a civic body, and seek a ruling on its appropriateness in a diverse public, we allow others who are not thinking theologically to compromise the most sacred aspects of our religious practices. When that happens, regardless of who wins in court, religion and its holy practices lose everywhere.

(The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all Americans regardless of faith or belief.)