Separation of church and state

The lobby in the building where I live is decorated annually with Christmas props that I wouldn’t have in my home. Some Jewish residents asked the building managers to add Hanukkah paraphernalia. I don't like that idea either. I wish folks of all religions would do their holiday homage privately.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard arguments over the proper role of prayer at town council meetings in Greece, N.Y. My residence isn't in a government building, so the comparison isn't exactly the same. But it will be if the court authorizes prayers in the government building in question.

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The prayers in question invoked Jesus Christ, son and savior, to honor the assembly and guide it through its mundane decisions concerning such profound township issues as sewers and bike paths. After an affronted atheist sued to prevent these invocations, the township brought in a Wiccan priestess, Baha’i and Jewish religious leaders (no Imams?) to provide “equal” time. Facetiously, Justice Samuel Alito asked about the status of devil worshipers.

The Supreme Court must now review the appellate court decision that the Greece prayer promoted a religion and thus was unconstitutional. Appellants argue that the Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not “from” religion.

Many legislative agencies open their sessions with prayers, though the Supreme Court ruled in 1971 that governments may not advance nor inhibit religion; they should “deal with legislation, not salvation,” as one legislator suggested. Public prayers are a “slippery slope”, critics fear, leading to establishment of majoritarian religion and the coercing and alienating of minority populaces.

In a 1983 Nebraska case, the Supreme Court ruled that religion is part of “fabric of society” and condoned a daily prayer in the Legislature. If the Supreme Court upholds the current practice in the case before it, the feared slippery slope will be deluged with endless variations of public prayers in all kinds of government agencies — schools, courts and others — that will wash away the historic wall of separation between church and state that was a centerpiece of our nation’s history and its first Bill of Rights.

Non-government public places will follow. Isn't this what our forefathers came here to avoid?

The Justices question whether and how courts could decide which prayers were constitutionally permissible. The debate makes my point: No number of religious items in the lobby (or varied prayers before government meetings) will be enough. If freedom of religion is so important that some public prayer is required (I think not, but most people do), the only permissive answer is a moment of silence during which all people may pray or not as they wish without imposing on all others. And we can adorn my lobby just with flowers.

Goldfarb is an attorney, author and literary agent based in Washington, D.C., and Miami.