US Supreme Court blasts another hole in the wall separating state and religion

On April 3, I posted an article on religion (“Freedom From Religion”) in which I differentiated between an individual’s right to worship whom he/she wants and how to worship from the destructive history of organized religion. Historically, organized religion has served as a tool of the ruling class to control the masses of people and as a vehicle for wars and intolerance of “others.”

Every religion has it’s rituals and mores and we all would like to think that we are God’s chosen and the only legitimate religion.

Then we have folks who do not believe there is a God, someone sitting up in the heavens looking down and judging us. We are called atheists.

I remember going to public school as a child and starting every day by standing and pledging allegiance to the American flag and once every week, during assembly, we’d all bow our heads as someone said a prayer. I was too young and naive to understand the implications of using the public domain for religious activity.

Why do I bring our attention to this topic again? Many of you have probably never heard of Greece, New York, a moderately sized community of about 100,000 people located outside Rochester. It seems that before public meetings, it is the tradition of this community to have a moment of silence for prayer. This practice began in 1999 and has continued for 15 years. It is important to note that, despite claims by town officials that they are open to any religious group leading the prayer, every single prayer in those 15 years has been a Christian prayer. So much for diversity.

But I stray from my main point: why is there religious prayer at a public meeting? If people who were not Christian chose not to participate in the prayer, would they be in danger of being ostracized by the community? If I was a merchant in that town and relied on these very same people to buy merchandize from me, would I possibly lose them as customers? This is the danger posed by religious activity in the public arena.

Two women brought suit to contest this practice, Linda Stephens, an atheist and Susan Galloway who is Jewish. They claim that officials continuously ignored their requests to end this practice but were ignored.

A federal appeals court in New York found the board’s policy to be a violation of the Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which forbids any government “endorsement” of religion. Those judges said it had the effect of “affiliating the town with Christianity.”

This case worked its way to the Supreme Court where the justices, in a 5–4 vote, upheld the right of the town of Greece to continue their prayers. It is difficult to imagine an unbiased ruling from the Supreme Court when they, themselves, begin their public sessions with the marshal invoking a traditional statement that ends, “God save the United States and this honorable court.” There are hundreds of people that attend Supreme Court hearings and they stand along with the justices during this ceremony. Congress and state legislatures as well regularly open their sessions with a prayer.

About 120 members of Congress along with 18 state attorneys general and the Obama administration, filed supporting legal briefs supporting the town of Greece. Why did the Obama administration involve itself in this matter?

Where do we find the separation of church and state if both Congress and the Supreme Court begin their sessions asking for God’s blessing and the U.S. president ends every speech with “God Bless America”? How many elected officials have admitted that they are atheists? Now that we’ve had a Catholic president and a black president, are we ready for a president who is an atheist?

The notion of separation of church and state is a fiction. We are in the 21st century and the ties between organized religion and the state have become more and more intense.

Once again, the Supreme Court is opening doors that may lead to serious consequences in our society. What happens when and if there comes a time where we officially become a Christian nation?

Dave Alpert has masters degrees in social work, educational administration, and psychology. He spent his career working with troubled inner city adolescents.

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