The Supreme Court Is Wrong: Public Prayer Is Always Coercion

This is a story that the Rude Pundit has told before, but, heck, that was probably years ago, so let's tell it again: It was the Rude Pundit's sophomore year of high school, an October day, possibly... probably... hard to remember. But this public school always started the day the same way: we were in homeroom, we got the announcements through the speakers, and then the announcer said, "Please rise for the Pledge of Allegiance." We took our oath to the fabric on a stick on the wall. Then the announcer said, "Please remain standing for a moment of silent prayer."

Now, south Louisiana being mainly Catholic, it would inevitably involve most of the students bowing their heads, muttering the Lord's Prayer or some such shit, and then crossing themselves. Most mornings, the Rude Pundit would stand there, wondering why the fuck he had to remain standing since he had no intention of praying. Sometimes, when he saw he was getting the stink eye from one person or another, he'd try to cross himself, although no one had ever taught him, so it looked like Jesus was more stoned to death than crucified.

But once, just once, he had a big biology test the next period, and he wanted to squeeze in just a little more studying. So he pledged his allegiance and then, thinking that he couldn't be compelled to pray, he sat down and got out his science notebook. A sharp voice came from the front of the classroom saying his full name. It was the homeroom teacher, who's probably dead now, but, hell, let's call her "Ms. Shithead" to protect her identity. She shout-whispered, "You stand up right now!" The Rude Pundit jumped up as everyone looked on at his heathen ass. (Note: The Rude Pundit hadn't fully committed to atheism at this point. If asked his religion, he'd say, "I'm guess I'm an agnostic because I don't care." When didn't feel like a discussion, he'd say, "Jewish." Either way, making the sign of the cross was not on his radar.)

After the prayer, Ms. Shithead asked the Rude Pundit to come to her desk. She explained that it was disrespectful for him to sit down while everyone was praying. "But I thought it was voluntary," he said. It is, she said, but even so, it's just good manners to stay on his feet. If he had thought that causing trouble was worth the effort, he might have responded, "So it's not voluntary." But, fuck it, he figured. He'd just fuckin' stand if it meant so goddamn much to everyone.

In other words, he was coerced into participating, whether he liked it or not.

The Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway certainly doesn't apply to morning prayers at public schools, but it's a step closer to making it possible, as Elena Kagan implies in her dissent. "Pray away at your town meetings, motherfuckers," said the majority. There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, according to Anthony Kennedy's opinion, it's as American as apple pie that you're forced to eat, even if you're allergic to apples.

Look at the wistful way Kennedy frames why a prayer at the top of a meeting of the town's legislative body is cool, even if those prayers are 99% Christian and often mention Jesus:

"In the town of Greece, the prayer is delivered during the ceremonial portion of the town's meeting. Board members are not engaged in policymaking at this time, but in more general functions, such as swearing in new police officers, inducting high school athletes into the town hall of fame, and presenting proclamations to volunteers, civic groups, and senior citizens. It is a moment for town leaders to recognize the achievements of their constituents and the aspects of community life that are worth celebrating." And, surely, you can't just honor someone without making sure they understand that Jesus is the reason for, well, Christ on a cracker, everything.

Kennedy goes on, "By inviting ministers to serve as chaplain for the month, and welcoming them to the front of the room alongside civic leaders, the town is acknowledging the central place that religion, and religious institutions, hold in the lives of those present. Indeed, some congregations are not simply spiritual homes for town residents but also the provider of social services for citizens regardless of their beliefs." No one doubts that everyone's gotta have their hoodoo to get 'em through this brutalizing world - some drink, some jack-off to midget porn, some worship Jesus - but Kennedy himself quotes several prayers spoken at the Greece, New York, town meetings that specifically reference God, Jr. or Christianity. Kennedy's solution: "Chill out, dudes. It's just a prayer." (That's not an exact quote.)

Justice Alito concurs that it's not an inconvenience to hear someone say a Christian prayer. What is an inconvenience is to tell chaplains and other prayer leaders to be non-denominational and inclusive in their praying: "[A]s our country has become more diverse, composing a prayer that is acceptable to all members of the community who hold religious beliefs has become harder and harder. It was one thing to compose a prayer that is acceptable to both Christians and Jews; it is much harder to compose a prayer that is also acceptable to followers of Eastern religions that are now well represented in this country. Many local clergy may find the project daunting, if not impossible, and some may feel that they cannot in good faith deliver such a vague prayer." Yeah, we wouldn't wanna put them out, now, would we?

Alito also cites the lack of non-Christians in Greece, which is a suburb, more or less, of Rochester, which is filthy with heathen Jews and Muslims, as a reason not to bother. So we can presume that Alito, a Catholic, would have no problem if an imam offered a prayer to Allah to start every town meeting in Lackawanna, New York.

Kennedy, Alito, and Clarence Thomas, writing his usual "You think that's crazy? Lemme show you crazy" concurrence, all seem to believe that because the Founders did it, it's cool. Do we need to break out the slavery argument here? The justices also believe that, as long as no one is forcing you to pray or trying to convert you directly, it's all good.

Public prayer is not a blithe, harmless, almost passive activity. It separates the believers from the non-believers, and it always implies that one should be behaving in a certain way. It forces you to conform or resist in settings where such pressures need not exist. Yeah, it's a fuck of a lot easier to say, "Kiss my ass. I'm sittin' out your prayer" in a large city. But in a small town, like Greece, or, perhaps, in the future, in a Southern classroom, it's an imposition on the freedom of others who want to go to secular things without having someone slap you in the face with their Christ butt plug.

The Rude Pundit has said it before and will say it again: "Freedom of religion" also means "freedom from religion."

Quick P.S. here: You know who offered an amicus brief in support of the praying rights of the Grecian people? The Obama administration. Yeah, the Solicitor General pretty much laid out everything Kennedy needed to say, so, you know, obviously the next State of the Union will start with an Islamic call to prayer.