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Why the Supreme Court’s Decision Is a Challenge, Not a Problem

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court decided in a split decision to keep intact its perceived understanding of permitting sectarian prayer in civic meetings. Most of the American Jewish world is concerned. For instance, Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued this statement:

“We are deeply disappointed by today’s Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway, upholding sectarian prayer before a legislative session. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy noted that requiring invocations be nonsectarian would call on the legislatures sponsoring these prayers and the courts to intervene and ‘act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.’ Yet, Justice Kennedy did suggest there were limits to such prayers, among them: denigrating non-believers or religious minorities, threatening damnation, or preaching conversion — leaving courts in exactly the same role as line-drawers. The record has shown that the overwhelming majority of prayers offered were Christian. That is why we were pleased to join an amicus brief to the Court, opposing the constitutionality of the town of Greece’s practices, along with a diverse array of faith and religiously-affiliated groups.”

Would I prefer the Court to have ruled differently? Yes. Am I surprised it did not. No.  Futhermore, its decision does not bother me for three reasons.

1) From my understanding of the U.S. Bill of Rights, the onus is on the government not to unduly influence religious institutions, not the other way around. Whether or not this is “good for the Jews,” it does represent the tenor of the First Amendment. Law professor Stephen L. Carter makes this argument in an easy to understand way in his book, The Culture of Disbelief.

2) You cannot legislate class, common sense, or good manners. Those who will choose to make others uncomfortable with their exclusionary antics will find a way, like the couple at the restaurant last week who were behaving as if their public displays of affection were invited or at least easily tolerated. Ministers are not immune from making others uncomfortable. Like others, they are usually unaware of the harm they are causing. The Nine Justices couldn’t change that no matter how much they try.

3) The best way to help make our civic ceremonies more sensitive is to reach out to our neighbors and educate them about what inspires and what harms. This is an education challenge, a networking call-to-arms, not a judicial or congressional matter.

We have just celebrated Israel’s 66th birthday. I am so proud of Israel, even though I realize our Israeli brothers and sisters continue to face many external and internal challenges. One thing they don’t have to worry about is non-Jewish religious people making them feel uncomfortable in small town civic ceremonies. Living in America means we do face such a challenge. It reminds me of what has often been said about our democracy: it is the worst form of government ever devised, except for all the others.

In short, if you want to help make more of us feel welcome here, don’t look to D.C. Look across the street. And then cross it, handshake at the ready.

Edwin Goldberg, D.H.L., is the senior rabbi of Temple Sholom of Chicago and is one of the editors of Mishkan HaNefesh, the new CCAR machzor.

4 replies on “Why the Supreme Court’s Decision Is a Challenge, Not a Problem”

I do disagree with one thing, Rabbi Goldberg. My congregation is in Alabama right in the buckle of the Bible Belt, and the community is overwhelmingly Christian Every meeting begins with a prayer, and it almost always is Christian and contains references to Jesus. I have made some inroads to having them be more inclusive. More often than not, I am told, “I cannot imagine praying without Jesus.” The Supreme Court has now given them permission to keep on doing what they have always done, which leaves us non-Christians excluded. I am not at all happy that the Supreme Court ruled as they did and side with Justice Kagen in her excellent dissenting opinion.

In my humble opinion, this ruling is bad not only for Jews but for all whose faith practices differ from the apparent majority (Christian). An invocation that is part of an agenda of a public meeting is just that, a segment of a gathering that is invoked by the municipal authority (or whatever part of government), and therefore is part of what the government subscribes to. An invocation that includes a declaration “in Jesus’ name we pray”, or even “I pray” excludes anyone not of that belief from the business at hand.

Thank you for this helpful post. I don’t know if I would have preferred the court to rule differently. With the Oklahoma Conference of Churches and others, we are convening a meeting of clergy people to discuss the ruling and how we each hear and understand “proselytizing.” It’s a great opportunity for us to get to know and understand each other better, and to raise awareness throughout our community that there are not only various ways to pray, but there are unintended consequences of the words we choose to use (and don’t use). We are intentionally reaching out to those who are not usually a part of our interfaith network and I am hopeful for the bridges we will build and the chance for the religious leaders to really talk about an issue that is difficult and important to us all.

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