Nel's New Day

August 31, 2014

Don’t Stand for Forced Religion

What good decisions has the U.S. Supreme Court recently made? Right now I can’t think of any. Justices stopped federal bans on marriage equality but allowed states to provide the most confusing situation imaginable. They permitted the Affordable Care Act but gave states the rights to keep the poor from getting health insurance. They increased the power of ammosexuals to run wild with their definition of the Second Amendment, promoting the killing of children and other innocent people. Their decisions about elections have permitted almost unlimited donations from the wealthy to legislative campaigns and taken away the rights of some people to vote. The Hobby Lobby decision against providing contraception move women’s reproductive rights back toward the middle of the 20th century.

With all these momentous rulings, a lesser noticed ruling further erased the separation of church and state, although the conservative justices refused to see its ramificationsGreece v. Galloway concerned prayer before the local council meetings in a Rochester (NY) suburb. The lawsuit started because almost all the invited “chaplains of the month” giving the invocation before the official business were Christian, clergy who called on Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit to tell city councilors how to make their conclusions. Some local citizens who thought that the First Amendment prevents local government from incorporating Christian prayers into government meetings sued.

Five Supreme Court justices disagreed, reversing a unanimous appellate court, because that prayer is only “ceremonial,” not religious, and therefore permissible. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy claimed that prayer (even explicitly Christian prayer) is not really religious, that its merely a tradition with no real religious purpose.

Fewer than four months after the decision, the invocation policy for this “ceremonial” practice excludes non-religious people and eliminates faiths not well-established in Greece. The new policy restricts opening remarks to listed “assemblies with an established presence in the Town of Greece that regularly meet for the primary purpose of sharing a religious perspective.” No non-believers who lack “established” meetings to discuss religious perspectives and minority faiths without enough local members for that “established presence” need apply.

The mayor of Winter Garden (FL) has gone even farther. John Rees called on police to escort 51-year-old Joseph Richardson out of the city commission’s meeting because he refused to stand during the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance, which uses the term “under God.” Rees justified his action by saying, “It’s just not fair to our troops and people overseas.”

The Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) told Rees that he violated two Supreme Court rulings that government officials lack the right to force attendees to stand whenever the pledge is recited. The letter also stated that refusing to rise and repeat the Pledge is more patriotic and respectful of the godless, secular constitution that created this nation, than rising and declaring our nation to be ‘one nation under god.’”

In the meeting’s prayer the night that Richardson was removed, Commissioner Bobby Olszewski thanked God “for allowing us to be in a country where we’re free to believe and think and pray.”

Rees needs to read the response to Greece from James C. Nelson, Justice (retired), Montana Supreme Court:

“I am a non-believer. I became one late in my adult life because I was disgusted with the hypocrisy of religion in general and with the Catholic Church in particular. My decision was grounded in more hours of study and contemplation than I care to estimate. I do not believe in, much less pray to, any god.

“And my point with that opening is that the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect my fundamental right to be a non-believer; they insure, among other things, that my various federal, state, county and local governments cannot require me – directly or indirectly – to participate in any religious exercise. Read together these religion clauses form the wall of separation between church and state that the framers intended. They keep – or at least they are supposed to keep – religion out of government and government out of religion.

“For many years I have stood during opening prayers in public meetings of federal, state and local government. I did so out of a sense of respect for the beliefs of others and for decorum – notwithstanding my personal dis-belief in the prayer and the god prayed-to. But, while respect can be freely given, it cannot be compelled.  And, thus, The Town of Greece leaves me but one option.

“I will stand no longer for prayer! I will not, as the Supreme Court suggests, leave the room during the invocation. Rather, I will sit during the prayer in the meeting room in which I am constitutionally entitled to assemble. I will not be bullied nor will I be shamed into standing. After all, it is not I who is violating the constitutional separation of church and state. I cannot and will not be compelled to participate in any fashion in government sponsored prayer.

“To be clear, my problem is not with those who profess and practice belief in one form of religious doctrine or another.  That fundamental right is guaranteed by the First Amendment. Rather, my issue is with public officials who insist on foisting their personal religious beliefs – through prayers in particular – on persons, like me and on others who do not believe, at public meetings. Stated another way, I take issue with government officers who insist on mixing their official duties with religious prayers, pontifications, Bible readings, and calls upon their God, before, during or at the end official public meetings.

“There are many ‘ocracys’ that the framers of our Constitution tried to prevent. Chief among them was theocracy. For, to paraphrase C.S. Lewis, those who torment us with their religious beliefs will do so without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience. And now, sadly, they will also do so officially, with the divine sanction of the Supreme Court of the United States.

“We the People may be stuck with the Court’s newest law; but, as for me. . . . I will stand no longer for prayer.”

Also in Florida, the five county commissioners in Brevard County voted unanimously to exclude a local atheist from delivering a prayer or invocation before the board’s public meetings. Remarks from nonreligious people are also limited to the “public comments” section of their meetings. They also used the excuse of the “ceremonial portion” of the county’s meeting which “invokes guidance for the County Commission from the highest spiritual authority.” A group of county commissioners in Florida is testing a recent Supreme Court decision by banning atheists from delivering an invocation before local public meetings.

The Supreme Court ruled that sectarian prayers before public meetings must be open to everyone. Kennedy made clear that the town must maintain a policy of non-discrimination and that it had “represented that it would welcome a prayer by any minister or layman who wished to give one.” That representation is gone.

In her dissent for the minority, Justice Elena Kagan warned that the decision in Greece v. Galloway could lead to discrimination against minority faiths. In her dissent for the minority, she accused the conservative justices of “blindness” to the “essential meaning of the religious worship in Greece’s town hall, along with its capacity to exclude and divide.” The Town of Greece has proved her right.

Reinforcing the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian nation, Militas (CA) is justifying the installation of “In God We Trust” in several public buildings, including the city hall’s Council Chambers.Mayor Jose Esteves said, “Our nation is built on that…. It’s part of American history.”

In Nebraska, Marvin Sundquist, 43, is suing the state because it threatens to remove his massage therapist license if he doesn’t attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He was denied the option to see an alcohol counselor who offers a non-religious program. Seven years ago, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a parole officer could be sued for damages for ordering a parolee to go through AA.  Sundquist is also seeking an injunction to prevent the state or its employees “from requiring similar religious activities against their religious objections.”

It is time that more people no longer stand for forced religion.


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