Mixing church, state

How is it that religions have coexisted in the United States for centuries? There will always be religious tensions given the United States’ status as a melting-pot nation with a constitutional guarantee not to establish a state religion, nor to prohibit the free exercise of any religion. Every American is free to practice whatever religion suits him or her best, or to practice no religion whatsoever.

How to make such a system work without stepping on each others’ toes is something with which Americans have wrestled for hundreds of years.

Courts typically are charged with making sure a majority doesn’t run roughshod over a minority – a role played beautifully by Robert H. Jackson during his time on the Supreme Court. It isn’t often the Supreme Court finds itself in the role of protecting a majority. That is what happened, however, when a divided court made its ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case that affirmed the long-held practice of opening legislative sessions with a prayer.

Justice Anthony Kennedy began the majority opinion by tracing the roots of prayer at a legislative session all the way back to the Continental Congress. Kennedy writes that prayer before a meeting is fine as long as it doesn’t “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion.” The opinion also states prayer givers can’t be chosen in a way that obviously discriminates against a given religion or shows obvious favoritism to any one sect.

Clear guidelines would have been preferable, but the court’s decision is a reasonable one. Legislative bodies that choose to open their meetings in prayer must show respect to the rainbow of religious beliefs in their communities. Clergy asked to open a meeting must show reason and common sense by not using the civic moment they are given as a chance to proselytize or demonize other religions or sects.

In the end, the golden rule is the best one: Do unto others as you would have done unto you.