The town of Grecian, Conn., is dominated by an Islamic population. For years, the town supervisor, a devout Muslim, invited a local imam to open the council's monthly meeting with a prayer from the Quran. Two residents, one Jewish the other Christian, were offended by this imposition of the Islamic faith into their secular government proceedings. They sued the town, arguing that invoking a Muslim prayer to open a town meeting violated the First Amendment. They argued that starting each meeting with a recitation from the Quran was nothing but the town's endorsement of Islam, in direct conflict with the Establishment Clause. Christians and Jews were horribly offended that their local government would so clearly favor one religion over the other, and so blatantly dismiss Judaism and Christianity as equally legitimate inspirations for prayer. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court agreed, and ruled against the town. The Supreme Court in May decided to hear the town's appeal. The White House, and GOP leaders in the House and Senate, have submitted briefs in support of the town with the following rather absurd claim: the town's exclusive appeal to Islam to open the council's meetings "does not amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion merely because most prayer-givers are Muslim and many or most prayers contain secular references." That rather twisted and forced logic implies that Islamic prayers do not promote Islam but all religion equally.
That story is fiction; there is no town of Grecian, Conn. But the town of Greece, N.Y., most certainly is real. Take the story above, substitute Greece, N.Y., for Grecian, Conn., and Christianity for Islam, and you have the scariest non-fiction possible.
The most important legal battle in the country was for the past few years quietly being waged here in Greece, N.Y., a small enclave near Rochester. Few have ever heard of the case, or of Greece, N.Y.. That will soon change. The Supreme Court will shortly hear arguments that may well undermine our most cherished founding principle, the separation of church and state. As you absorb the folly to come, forget not that early settlers made the arduous journey to our shores in part to escape the stifling oppression of a dominant religion. The urgent need to rid the government from the influence of a single religion was Thomas Jefferson's unifying and guiding principle.
In Greece, N.Y., the town supervisor each month invited a local Christian minister to open the council's meeting with a prayer. Until 2008, only Christians were allowed to lead the prayer. This exclusivity is important because the Supreme Court has previously ruled, under the so-called "O'Connor's endorsement standard" that the government violates the First Amendment whenever it appears to "endorse" religion. Excluding all religions but one is by any standard an endorsement of that one remaining religion. The Supreme Court has previously agreed.
A Jewish resident, along with a resident atheist, sued the Greece town council arguing that "a reasonable observer" would conclude that Christian prayer "must be viewed as an endorsement of a... Christian viewpoint" and therefore is in violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause. As with the fictional story, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court agreed, ruling against the town; and the Supreme Court in May decided to hear the town's appeal. I have only rarely disagreed with Obama's policies, but he could not be more wrong than here in his support of the Greece town council. Town supporters argue that the Court should "relax" constitutional limits on religious invocations. Really? Should we "relax" our right to bear arms? How about our privacy protections under the constitution? How about the right to assembly? The right to free speech? Should we "relax" those protections? Maybe we should just scrap the entire Bill of Rights because the protections given therein might inconvenience a subset of our society.
All debate can be quashed with one simple question, which I meant to pose by example in the opening paragraph. Would any Christian or Jew tolerate a town meeting opened exclusively with an Islamic prayer from the Koran? We know absolutely the answer is an emphatic no. And that is all there is to discuss. If a town council cannot impost Islam on its residents, then the council cannot impose Christianity. Any effort to do so is unambiguously a violation of the Establishment Clause. Such an imposition is precisely what Jefferson and our other founder's feared most.
The obvious test here, and in all similar cases, is to substitute one religion for the other and see if the ruling would be consistent. If not, the government is establishing religion. It would be rather absurd on one hand to say opening a government meeting exclusively with a Christian prayer does not endorse Christianity, but opening with an Islamic prayer in fact endorses Islam. But Greece, N.Y., would not contemplate opening all meetings with an Islamic prayer. Any reasonable observer must conclude that restricting prayer to a single religion in a supposedly secular setting is an endorsement of that religion. There is no argument to refute that. If you weaken in resolve, simply imagine an imam, bearded and turbaned, in traditional dress, standing before our United States Congress, invoking the Quran to open every session of the House and Senate. Not comfortable with that? Then imagine how every Jew, Muslim and Atheist feels with each opening of a government meeting with a Christian prayer.
The Supreme Court should have never agreed to hear this case; that the arguments will take place is further evidence that our judicial branch of government has been hijacked by zealots with a political agenda beyond the anticipated role and mandate of our highest court.
First posted on the Huffington Post
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