legislative prayer cultural right

Legislative Prayer: a Cultural Right?

The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway, where a Court of Appeals ruled that opening town board meetings with Christian prayers violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. According to the Los Angeles Times [1], this case “could lead to a significant shift in law separating church and state.”

As I first became acquainted with this case, my initial gut reaction was that reciting prayers in public institutions is, indeed, blatantly unconstitutional. Yet after giving the matter some careful thought, I surprisingly found myself in agreement—although, perhaps for different reasons—with those who hope that the Supreme Court will come to the defense of legislative prayer. The case I wish to briefly defend isn’t motivated by any form of religious bigotry, but is predicated on a culture’s right to self-preservation.

Culture is defined [2] as “the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs that distinguishes one group from another. Culture is transmitted, through language, material objects, ritual, institutions, and art, from one generation to the next.” Culturally-defining beliefs could be understood as being either secular or religious, as this definition—and all others I’m aware of—makes no distinction between the two. Therefore, American culture is definable in part by its relatively strong adherence [3] to religious beliefs.  While the percentage of Christians appears to be on the decline, they comprise as much as 73% [4] of the population (adherents of other faiths make up another 6%). Contrast this with a country like France, where no more than a fifth [5] of the population describes itself as religious.

Fortunately, we have come to value cultural diversity and honor a culture’s right to self-preservation. According to Article 1 [6] of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (which the U.S. has ratified), “all peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.”

Historically, the American people have pursued their cultural development through private and public means. From preserving local historical sites to organizing musical events and art exhibitions, government institutions are routinely used to promote culture. There’s nothing scandalous about this. To my knowledge, no one has urged the courts to stop the city government of Richmond, Kentucky from organizing clog dancing classes. I see nothing natural—or constitutional—about excluding religious rituals like prayer as admissible expressions of culture in the public square, especially in a town like Greece, New York, where at least 85% of the people [7] adheres to some form of Christianity.

I don’t seek to portray opponents of legislative prayer as waging a “war on religion” or staging a “cultural genocide” against Americans. And I’m not of the view that a decision to uphold the lower court’s ruling would sound the death knell for religion in the U.S.  But I have come to believe that such a decision would constitute an act of injustice—however small—against a uniquely religious culture.

— Amir Azarvan

Amir Azarvan is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Georgia Gwinnett College.

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