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‘Forgive Us For Our Arrogance’: Town of Greece v. Galloway

The Free Exercise Thereof

By Aidan R. Scully, Contributing Opinion Writer
Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

For as long as I can remember, my elected representatives have invoked the Christian god at every school committee meeting in my hometown.

“Lord,” begins the prayer in no uncertain terms, “as we begin this session, let us acknowledge your goodness and mercy, and ask your blessings on all our deliberations. We thank you for this opportunity to be of service to our community and to the young people entrusted to our care.”

The sentiment of the prayer is not lost on me. It treats the care of young people as the lofty responsibility that it is, and I have no doubt that it is well-intentioned. But every time I attended one of those meetings, and every time it opened with a prayer, I shrank into myself. It was clear that I was different, the “other,” simply for what I believed. That my worldview was less valid. That the people to whose care I was “entrusted” deemed it acceptable to disregard me.

The practice was discomforting; it was unnecessary. It was also, much to my surprise, completely constitutionally acceptable.

Legislative invocations are a symbolic representation of the growing tide of Christian Nationalism in the United States. They do not blame atheists for mass violence or enable discrimination against marginalized groups, but they do send a clear message to the nation’s citizens —religious and nonreligious alike —about where our elected officials believe they derive their authority from. And more often than not, invocators are not looking to include everyone in their constituency.

Religious invocations for legislative sessions first became a constitutional issue in the Supreme Court’s 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers. The case concerned the Nebraska legislature’s practice of beginning each session with a prayer delivered by a publicly-funded chaplain, a position that had only been filled by a Presbyterian minister for the sixteen years preceding the case. In a 6-3 decision, the Court ruled that the practice was constitutional, citing the historical prevalence of legislative prayer in the United States. The practice did not violate the Establishment Clause, the majority decided, but was rather “a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

The Supreme Court would expand on this decision in 2014 with Town of Greece v. Galloway, ruling that legislative prayer practices which allowed members of the community to deliver invocations were constitutional as well. These prayers did not need to be non-sectarian, as the government was not in a position to police religious speech, and they would not be considered coercive.

Yet the ceremonial weight of legislative prayer is not simply limited to an internal impact on a legislative body. It lends credence to a religious interpretation of the purpose of government, and of that body in particular. And as so often happens in religious matters in the United States, that ceremonial weight falls almost universally in Christians’ favor and at the expense of minority religious communities.

The complaint in the Greece case was brought by two plaintiffs, one Jewish and one atheist, both of whom attested that the overwhelming Christian prayers were not at all inclusive of their community. In 2005, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Cynthia Simpson could be blocked from delivering an invocation due to her Wiccan beliefs, saying that Simpson’s prayer would not fit with the “unifying aspects of our heritage.” Legislators have often made a show of publicly protesting non-Christian invocations, deriding Quranic readings as “despicable,” attacking Hinduism as a “false faith with false gods,” and responding to a humanist invocation by asking God to “forgive us for our arrogance.”

In each of these cases, a narrow but vocal subset of Christian politicians ignore the fact that these individuals, often their constituents and colleagues, experience the same discomfort every time a Christian prayer is used to open a meeting.

Unfortunately, in the years since the Greece ruling, that same vocal subset of Christian politicians has found ways to use the decision to target and exclude atheists specifically. In 2019, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in Fields v. Speaker that atheists could be banned from delivering invocations in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives because they were not specifically invoking “divine guidance.” That same year, a three-judge panel in the D.C. Circuit handed down a similar ruling in Barker v. Conroy, ruling that even though he met nearly all the legal requirements, Dan Barker could be blocked from delivering an invocation before Congress because he would not be invoking a traditional higher power.

The clear preference for theism, and specifically for Christianity, within legislative prayers is no accident. On paper, the purpose of invocations may well be to solemnize the deliberations, and for some, Christian prayers may well succeed in doing just that. But that is never their sole consequence. When a circuit court or city council deems it acceptable to explicitly exclude atheists, ignore minority religious communities, and host almost exclusively Christian voices, that is a deliberate choice with the specific aim of asserting to the public that Christianity and the American government are intertwined. Other beliefs are off-handedly cast out of our national cultural heritage.

If we are to make legislative invocations a genuinely inclusive civic practice, we must ensure that all of the many religious and nonreligious communities that make up our country can be and are welcomed. That means allowing all communities, regardless of whether they invoke our understanding of a “higher power” or fit with our “heritage,” to encourage us to work together using their own spiritual or ethical language. That means consciously going out of our way to invite in historically underrepresented communities. And that means embracing our diversifying religious landscape to engage with one another all the more deeply.

Aidan R. Scully ’25 is a Classics and Religion concentrator in Adams House. His column “The Free Exercise Thereof” appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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