Editor's note: This contribution by the late journalist I.F. Stone first appeared in our January 1975 magazine.
This week’s Supreme Court decision allowing some sectarian prayer at city council meetings is a deeply disappointing betrayal of America’s honored progressive values. Once again, the lopsided conservative majority proudly announced that it is on the wrong side of history.
In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the four staunchly non-progressive justices huddled together in what social scientists call “in group bias.” They patronizingly viewed us “out group” atheists, agnostics, Jews and other non-Christians as marginalized citizens.
One of the plaintiffs in the Greece case is Linda Stephens, a nonbeliever and Life Member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who did not appreciate having to endure proselytizing prayers.
We were really hoping Justice Kennedy, who has a long history of resisting governmental coercion, would be able to acknowledge the inherent inequality and divisiveness that actually occur when the government sanctions religious exercises at public meetings.
In her scathing dissent, Justice Kagan clearly spotted the problem with the majority’s decision: “When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so not as members of one faith or another. And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”
However, Kennedy, no longer a “swing vote,” caved in to the status quo doctrine that in order for government to function properly, the meetings must be “solemnized” with a “gravity” that is “ceremonial.”
Referring to an imagined history—a history that Justice Kagan challenged in her dissent—Justice Kennedy invoked “values long part of the nation’s heritage.”
But doesn’t he see that by equating God with gravity, he has placed his personal theistic views above those of us who equate God with levity?
And does he truly think law is determined by history?
Is “heritage” a club to be widely wielded against the “out group”?
So what do we do?
We can fight back.
Before these bad laws are eventually overturned by a more enlightened future Supreme Court, we seculars and progressives can use the same opportunity given to Christian clergy: We can ask for our own equal-time free-speech chance to give freethinking and nonreligious invocations before those very same city council meetings.
According to Kennedy’s decision, all Americans, not just Christians, have the right to address their secular government.
To that end, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced a “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” contest.
Ask your city to allow you to give an “atheist invocation” (or agnostic, secular, freethought, nonreligious invocation). Videotape the invocation and submit it to FFRF.
For details, click here.
In America, we are free to disagree with one another on religious matters. We are not free to ask our government to settle the argument.
By Dan Barker, Co-President of the Freedom From Religion Foundation author of “Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists”