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11 November 2013

It's All Greek to Meme

The Supreme Court heard arguments last week about the opening prayer of the Town Board in Greece, New York. SCotUS seems to be focusing on two questions. First, is sectarian prayer in a state setting coercive? Second, does the First Amendment prohibit the state from adjudicating the sectarian nature of the language invoked in public prayer? In other words, should that government be in the business of saying prayer A is too divisive and, thus, censored while prayer B is relatively inclusive and, thus, permissible.

First, on coercion, the most sociological of the two questions. The framing here as "coercive" is oddly limiting in that it sets a bar that is inexplicably high. The hegemonic influence of many religions (but especially of Evangelical Christianity) can be quite deleterious without reaching the heights of overt force or threat typically required of coercion. I've written before on Christian privilege, though, so I won't rehash those arguments here. In addition, prayer has been framed in the arguments as being inherently "offensive" as one can never please all the people all the time. The idea that sectarian prayer is offensive, however, is a straw-man framing. I've written (here and here) about "offensiveness" previously as well.

Finally, on government censorship, a decidedly legal question but one with quite practical implications. The answer that many commentators seem to be giving is that the government should not be in the business of regulating prayer and that this means that the Court should rule that, essentially, anything goes. This seems absurd to me. The obvious alternative is this: if some prayer is sectarian, and thus inappropriate in public meetings, and if the state can't regulate the content of the prayer, prayer does not belong in public meetings. The presence of prayer in government forums is problematic; its absence is not.

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