WASHINGTON — Christians might say it was the first good day God has had in court in recent memory.
Monday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court – that town councils may open up their sessions with a prayer by a chaplain – follows years of rulings in courts across America that interpret the Establishment Clause of the Constitution in favor of secularists and atheists.
“It’s certainly a fresh and encouraging opinion in an area of law that has long been messed up by the court,” constitutional law expert Herb Titus of the Washington law firm William J. Olson P.C. told WND.
By a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled the town of Greece, New York, did not violate the Constitution by allowing Christian prayers before monthly town-hall meetings on public property.
Two residents in the town of 100,000, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, said in their lawsuit that the practice made them uncomfortable.
Stephens had complained, “If you refuse to stand up and bow your head, you stick out. It’s a coercive situation.”
Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers did not constitute coercion, but were part of a recognition of religious leaders and the institutions they represent, as well as part of a long-standing American tradition of opening meetings with prayers.
Going even further, Kennedy said it was even constitutional that the prayers were mostly Christian, because, to force the invocations to be nonsectarian would have been to “force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.”
Even though the town was supported by many top Democrats, including even President Obama, the four liberal Supreme Court justices voted against allowing the prayers.
In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan, appointed by Obama, called the prayers “government-sponsored worship that divides (people) along religious lines.”
She said it violated the “idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”
Kagan also expressed concern that in such an “intimate” setting as a town hall, children and teenagers likely would be present and exposed to prayer.
However, Titus said he believed even President Thomas Jefferson, the man who coined the expression “separation of church and state,” would have approved of the high court’s ruling.
In particular, Titus felt Jefferson would have endorsed the reasoning by Justice Clarence Thomas, in his concurring opinion, that it is none of the business of the U.S. government, or the Constitution, to tell local governments how they should behave.
“There’s been this notion that somehow you have to exclude Christians, or anyone with a religious view, from government because it had to be completely secular. That is itself discriminating, particularly against the Christian view of the role of God in nations,” Titus added.
Conservative lawmakers and religious organizations reacted swiftly and gratefully to the news, with the office of Sen. Mark Rubio, R-Fla., assuring WND that he had filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the town of Greece.
The senator emphasized that religion in America should not be a divisive issue, but just the opposite, saying, “Unlike so many other countries around the world, America always has been a place where religion brings people together. In times of war and peace, tragedy and triumph, prayer has united us.”
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, who signed Rubio’s brief, said judges should not be able to regulate or dictate the particular content of prayers that citizens choose to offer.
Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., told WND the Supreme Court got it right, saying, “The Founding Fathers invoked God through prayer at public meetings at the creation of this country, and that tradition has continued to this day.”
Also telling WND the justices made the right call was Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, who said, “Government officials and citizens freely expressing their personal religious beliefs is in no way an official establishment of religion.”
“In fact, it is exactly what the Constitution protects,” he said, adding, “Using the First Amendment to restrict religious expression is a perversion of the law, and the Court recognizes that.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said the decision “is a great victory for religious liberty and a reminder that the Constitution does not remove religion from the public sphere.”
The Family Research Council, or FRC, also filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. FRC President Tony Perkins said, “The court has rejected the idea that as citizens we must check our faith at the entrance to the public square. ”
Perkins also noted, “If the lower court ruling were correct, then Congress would have been violating the Constitution for more than two centuries. The Supreme Court majority recognized the absurdity of a ruling that would have even found the Constitution’s authors in violation of their own document.”
Agreeing with Titus’ reading of the Establishment Clause, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said, “The separation of church and state was not intended to empower government censorship of individuals’ religious expressions, but to protect the religious institution from government coercion.”
Rep. James Lankford, R-Okla., echoed that sentiment, saying, “A government that acknowledges people of faith is not the same as a government that establishes or demands a particular religion.”
As for the Christian content of the prayers, the Oklahoman noted, “Members of all faiths in the U.S. are free to speak to God in their own way, including Christian officials.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the court had reaffirmed the strong constitutional footing of an important American tradition.
Ralph Reed, chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, welcomed the decision, saying, “Speech honoring God and invoking His blessing on our land should be welcomed, not treated with hostility.”
The American Center for Law and Justice, or ACLJ, which filed its own friend-of-the-court brief in the case issued a statement that called it an important victory for constitutionally protected speech.
And Mat Staver, founder and chairman of Liberty Counsel, which also filed a brief in the case, minced no words, declaring, “This opinion refutes all of the nonsense that the atheists groups have been spewing for years.” He derided the “absurdity of trying to force a minister to pray to a neutral deity inoffensive to all present.”
Follow Garth Kant on Twitter @DCgarth