May 17, 2014

By Bruce S. Kramer and Scott Kramer

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion ...

In its Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on May 5 ignored this mandate from the First Amendment and opened the door to religious favoritism prohibited by the Constitution.

Our Founding Fathers embraced the unique political philosophy that all people were endowed with certain inalienable rights, one of which is the right to practice their religion or not, and to be free from government mandates that they practice or support any religion. Our Constitution was created to secure the blessings of liberty by limiting the powers of government.

The government cannot favor one religion over another, nor can it favor religion over atheism or agnosticism. Governmental favoritism only serves to divide and drive a wedge between citizens over what should be a private matter. In this country, government does not discriminate on matters of faith, or a lack thereof. No one should be treated like a second-class citizen by the government simply because he or she does not share a particular set of beliefs.

What may begin as a tolerant expression of religious views by the government may end in a policy of indoctrination and coercion. This fear of government indoctrination and coercion is exactly what inspired our Founding Fathers to include the Establishment Clause in the Bill of Rights in the first place.

Allowing churches to play a prominent role in civil government led to centuries of wars in Europe. The Founding Fathers were determined to ensure that the religious wars which had plagued Europe would not infect our new republic. At the same time, most Americans wanted to protect their religious views and institutions from the unfair advantage that some religions enjoyed in Europe through government support.

The Town of Greece decision flies in the face of the Founding Fathers’ goals. Being subject to group prayer should not be the price of civic participation. When a citizen participates in government, religious beliefs should not be an issue. As Thomas Jefferson stated, “Opinions in matters of religion shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or effect civil capacities.”

The potential for divisiveness is particularly relevant when it centers around an overt religious exercise in a governmental setting, where coercive pressures can exist. The words of George Washington still ring true today: “Religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”

Although the Founders spoke with one voice in declaring religious liberty an inalienable right, there was not consensus among them as to the proper role for religion in government. One thing they did agree on, however, was that, as James Madison wrote, “The great danger in republics is that the majority will not respect the rights of minority.” The minority, as Jefferson proclaimed in his first inaugural address, “possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

The Founders knew that religious beliefs and religious expression were too precious to be proscribed or prescribed by the state. Citizens participate in the business of government not as members of a religious majority or minority, as Catholics or evangelicals, as Sunni or Shia, as atheists or agnostics, but as Americans.

Prior to the court’s ruling in Town of Greece, government-sponsored prayer had been off-limits in every other context, and it should not be permitted in town meetings. It only serves to divide Americans and pit one against another over what should be a private matter of conscience, unrelated to and uninvolved in the workings of our government. Remember, it is our government — yours and mine.

In 1790, Moses Seixas wrote to George Washington of his gratitude that America had a government “which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance — but generously affording to All liberty of conscience, and immunities of Citizenship: deeming everyone, of whatever nation, tongue or language, equal parts of the great governmental machine.”

When citizens approach their government, it should be as Americans only, not as members of one faith or another. And to participate in government, Americans should not have to confront government-sponsored worship which can only serve to divide us.

The decision in Greece will sadly go down in history as another divisive and unpalatable ruling from the Supreme Court. It will take its place alongside Korematsu v. United States, Dred Scott v. Sandford and Plessy v. Ferguson as an abandonment of constitutional principles for political purposes.

Bruce S. Kramer is a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and an attorney with Apperson Crump PLC. Scott Kramer is an attorney with Apperson Crump PLC.

This op-ed appeared in The Commercial Appeal on May 17, 2014.