The following was submitted to the Oakland Press as a Guest Opinion:
The most basic meaning of the First Amendment is that political majorities do not rule on religious issues.
During its 2013/14 term, the Supreme Court will re-visit the issue of official prayer at legislative meetings. Two non-christians from Greece, N.Y. sued their Town Board, charging that the prayers used to open its meetings have been overwhelmingly christian, which constitutes a government endorsement of christianity. One of the plaintiffs, Linda Stephens, said, “I don’t think you should have to endure religious indoctrination in order to participate in your own town government.
Town Supervisor John Auberger defended official prayer, saying, “We have a rich tradition, back to our founding fathers, of opening legislative meetings with a prayer.” Paul Clement, a former solicitor general during the Bush administration, made a similar comment: “It’s constitutional because there’s a history, not because there’s a good argument for it.” Even the 1983 Supreme Court Marsh v. Chambers decision, which upheld the Nebraska legislature’s prayer practice, relied on the history of legislative prayer as justification.
Citing history cannot justify any practice. Slavery had a long history in the New World, from the time of Columbus to the American Civil War — about 350 years. Despite that long history, the principle that slavery is wrong led to its ending. By citing history, prayer supporters are trying to avoid the issue of right and wrong, and simply have official legislative prayer practices “grandfathered” in.
The term “grandfather clause” originated during the Jim Crow era, when a number of states enacted poll taxes and literacy tests as qualifications to vote, intending to shut blacks out of the voting booth. The authors of those voting restrictions found that they had also shut out a significant number of poor and uneducated white voters. The solution they crafted was to add a clause exempting anyone whose grandfather had been eligible to vote. The grandfathers of most blacks, they knew full well, had not been eligible to vote because they had been held as slaves. “Grandfathering” is a work-around employed to continue an unjust practice, using history to dismiss rational arguments against injustice. “Grandfathering” to stack the deck racially in elections was wrong, and “grandfathering” to continue official legislative prayer is wrong.
The most basic meaning of the First Amendment is that political majorities do not rule on religious issues. No government body or official has any legitimate power to authorize, commission or schedule prayer.
Also, the Obama administration’s contention, in a friend of the court brief saying that the Greece, N.Y situation isn’t serious enough to be considered a violation of the First Amendment, is just a politically-cheap way of pandering to conservatives. Throwing the non-christian minority’s First Amendment rights under the bus to score points with would-be theocrats is despicable.