By Dan Barker
Freedom From Religion Foundation
This week’s Supreme Court decision allowing some sectarian prayer at city council meetings is a deeply disappointing betrayal of America’s honored progressive values. Once again, the lopsided conservative majority has proudly announced that it is on the wrong side of history.
We were not surprised to see the four staunchly nonprogressive justices huddle together in what social scientists call “in group bias,” patronizingly viewing us “out group” atheists, agnostics, Jews and other nonChristians as tolerated but marginalized citizens. Real Americans can pray, as they have always done (so the court imagines) while we nonbelievers sit in our secular City Hall beside our insider neighbors, listening but looking the other way. One of the plaintiffs in the Greece case is Linda Stephens, a nonbeliever and Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who has had to endure those proselytizing prayers fighting back with her only defensive weapon: keeping her eyes wide open.
But we were really hoping Justice Kennedy, who has a long history of resisting governmental coercion, would be able to keep his eyes open long enough to acknowledge the inherent inequality and divisiveness that actually occurs when the government sanctions religious exercises at public meetings.
Justice Kagan clearly spotted and articulated the problem in her scathing dissent: “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”
However, Kennedy, no longer a “swing vote,” caved in to the shrinking but still influential status quo doctrine that in order for government to function properly, the meetings must be “solemnized” with a “gravity” that is “ceremonial.” Referring to an imagined history—a history that Justice Kagan challenged in her dissent—Justice Kennedy invoked “values long part of the nation’s heritage.” But doesn’t he see that by equating God with gravity, he has placed his personal theistic views above those of us who equate God with levity? Does he truly think law is determined by history? Is “heritage” a club to be widely wielded against the “out group”?
So what do we do? We can fight back. Before these bad laws are eventually overturned by a more enlightened future Supreme Court, we seculars and progressives can use the same opportunity given to Christian clergy: we can ask for our own equal-time free-speech chance to give freethinking and nonreligious invocations before those very same city council meetings! According to Kennedy’s decision, all Americans, not just Christians, have the right to address their secular government.
To that end, The Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” contest. Ask your city to allow you to give an “atheist invocation” (or agnostic, secular, freethought, nonreligious invocation). Videotape the invocation and submit it to FFRF. For details, see: FFRF announces ‘Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award’ contest
In America, we are free to disagree with one another on religious matters. We are not free to ask our government to settle the argument.
Dan Barker is author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists