Tuesday, July 29, 2014 Av 2, 5774

Praying for Separation of Church and State

May 7, 2014
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This week’s Supreme Court decision to allow local town meetings to open with a sectarian prayer sends us barrelling once again through the barrier separating church and state. 

On a very practical level, it opens the door for citizens in small towns across America to be subject to religious doctrine not of their choosing that may in fact be antithetical to their beliefs.

And ironically, this blatant exclusion could confront individuals at the very time they are choosing — or need — to participate in local civic affairs. 

The 5-4 decision along conservative-liberal lines handed down Monday reversed a lower appeals court decision in favor of a lawsuit brought by Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, in Greece, a town in upstate New York.

Since 1999, the town board has opened meetings with a prayer, almost always by Christian clergymen who sometimes proselytized.

It cannot be a coincidence that of four justices who dissented, three are Jewish. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Elena Kagan and Stephen Breyer are old enough to remember when schoolchildren were subject to obligatory prayer in school that often invoked Jesus and other Christian theology. Whether or not they personally experienced the discomfort and at times humiliation such prayer meant for many children, they understand what it means to be a minority whose First Amendment rights must be protected. 

The issue raises all kinds of questions regarding the entanglement, establishment and coercion of religion. One thing it certainly does is undermine the notion of religious neutrality that must be upheld in a democratic society where many religions abound.

At a time when our country is becoming more ethnically and religiously diverse, the wall between church and state should not be crumbling even further.

As JTA reported, Kagan, in her dissent, cited a seminal moment in American Jewish history in 1790, when George Washington communicated with Moses Seixas, a lay official of the Jewish community in Newport, R.I.

She noted that Seixas, in a letter to Washington, expressed gratitude for an American government “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affords to All liberty of conscience and immunities of Citizenship.”

In his reply, now enshrined as a key document outlining religious freedoms, Washington, “like any successful politician,” Kagan said, appropriated Seixas’ language.

Let’s encourage local townships to think like George Washington, not the Supreme Court, when they convene the body politic. 

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