A divided Supreme Court said today that a municipality to beginning its business meetings with prayer did not violate the U.S. Constitution. For ten years a suburb of Rochester, N.Y., has followed an unwritten policy of asking a member of the local clergy to give a prayer as the first item of city business. The prayer exercise was rotated among willing clergy from houses of worship in the town. The board did not review the prayers in advance, but along with others in attendance heard each prayer for the first time at the start of the meeting.
The lawsuit was brought by two local citizens who attended numerous board meetings. Their complaint was that many of the prayers were given "in Jesus' name" or were otherwise explicitly Christian, and that the clergy leading the prayers would often begin by inviting all present to "join with me" or similar words, as well as suggesting a posture of bowed heads and folded hands. The remedy requested by these two complainants was surprising. They did not ask the court to do away with the prayers altogether. Rather, if there was to be prayer, they claimed the law required that it be "nonsectarian." I will have more to say about that odd choice for a remedy, but it immediately placed their lawsuit on poor footing.
The court's ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway is being widely celebrated by evangelicals as a victory. Is it? Or have we rendered unto Caesar a franchise to pray, otherwise thought to be a privilege of conversing with God that we ascribe to his followers? Early in his book The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey draws our attention to Satan's temptation of Christ in the wilderness. In turning down the three temptations, observes ...1