Supreme Count One Vote from Banning Public Prayer

By: Tia Johnson 0 Comments   8/5/2014

Last May was a victory for many Christians who were awaiting the Supreme Court's decision that supported the use of prayer before public meetings. This decision, over a case from New York, was a definite stand that religious freedom was more important than religious offense.

However, there was one concerning detail of this case: the vote was a mere 5-4.

One vote determined the outcome of this case. If one person on the bench had voted differently, the sentiment toward religious freedom in our country would be forever changed.

I think back to the speech I gave at one of my college graduations. Prayer was part of it. So were other expressions of my faith. This was at a small public community college, so the environment was much friendlier than my later university would have been.

A speech with prayer can cause a lot of tension for many other public authorities. But I believe this tension is rooted in a poor understanding of what religious freedom is and its great importance to all individuals.

Typically, two sentiments exist regarding religious expression. Os Guinness described them as the "naked public square" and the "sacred public square." (See his book, The Global Public Square.)

These titles describe their position well. The "naked public square" is very much evident in this case and is the idea that our nation should be cleansed from any religious expression altogether. This, of course, is impossible, for to cleanse a nation of religious expression would be to cleanse it of any expression. All ideas and opinion are rooted in some form of belief.

The "sacred public square," on the other hand, is the idea that one religion should be preferred over all others. We see this rather extremely in Islamic nations that adopt Shariah law. But it also comes in more subtle forms, including those who want the Christian faith to be forced upon others.

What is healthiest for the spiritual and political landscape of a nation, though, is neither camp. Instead, a healthy respect for all will not only protect religious freedom, it will also best promote the exploration of truth. "…each person and each group must realize that their own rights are best protected when the rights of all others are protected too…" Os Guinness wrote. It's not so much that we are looking for a certain belief to be protected; we need believers- all believers- to be protected, to be free to explore and chose whom and what they will put their trust in.

I recently read of the release of Miriam, a young married woman who was sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging because of her Christian beliefs. She was pregnant and delivered her baby while imprisoned, all because of a nation who did not feel it was lawful for her to think or act outside of Islamic beliefs. How ironic, though, that though our nation aided in her release, it continues with subtle, yet similar, persecutions of its own. 

In our nation, religious freedom is tolerated only when it can stay encapsulated in its own bubble. Once it invades, say, a desire for equality, or political power, the sentiment in our nation tends to be that religious freedom must be sacrificed. Its incredible value is simply unseen by many, until the day that it is lost.

Equality vs. Liberty

This idea of equality verses liberty is also threaded through this case and has been an ongoing battle through history, wrote Guinness. "For liberty often threatens equality, just as equality often threatens liberty." A page later, he wrote, "Liberty by definition is uncoerced, whereas equality is artificial and can be established only by coercion."

Here we see why our freedoms are so often stepped upon: equality is simply valued more, and equality can only be achieved by coercion.

This discussion also brings me back to the life of Dietrich Boenhoffer (biography, written by Eric Metaxes). While this German theologian traveled through the United States of America in the 1930s, he couldn't help but note the racist segregation between whites and blacks in our nation. That did not exist in Germany. Yet how close Germany was, with the politics innocently brewing at the time, to mass assassinations of the Jewish people in their own country. Most would have thought that the U.S. was worse off, but in a few years time Germany would discover how bad things had very quickly become in their own home. Hitler was smart. He used politics, religion, and lots of lies to motivate people, and he took them by surprise.

We may look at other nations and be thankful for the equality we see here. It's not perfect, but it's better than most. However, the state of our liberties is a much better sign of a healthy nation than its equalities.

The Supreme Court decision was close. Nearly half of the bench didn't mind stepping on religious freedom in order to coerce its people into a "naked public square." In my opinion, such people sitting on the bench is dangerous. 

The ability to pray before a civic meeting is a peaceful expression of religious freedom. It does not cause harm to its hearers. (Being uncomfortable or offended is a normal part of a diverse life and should not be classified as "harm.") This picture of religious expression needs to be protected at all costs, knowing that a protection for one is a protection for all.

This November, pay special attention to who is on your ballot and where they stand in regards to religious freedom. Especially research the judges who are being elected. Let's use our voice while we have them.

Yet above all, do not dismay. May we represent our faith well and fight for its freedoms hard, but all the while trust in the one who knows all. This is a portion of our faith no one can trample: our hope and peace. Live it.

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