Oops, There Goes the First Amendment

By Jeffrey Page

U.S. Supreme Court Building

U.S. Supreme Court Building

I’m not a constitutional lawyer. I’m just an American watching the U.S. Supreme Court change my country in ways that once would have been unimaginable.

For example, in Citizens United, the court decreed that corporations have the same rights as human beings. And now, the court holds that it’s essentially permissible for government to endorse one religion over another and put an end to the concept of religious neutrality.

Once, we were a nation of reason, a sanctuary for the tempest-tossed, a place where immigrants, no matter their faith, seeking peace and maybe even a little understanding, could go to get away from the mob. 

Once, we took the opening clause of the Bill of Rights seriously: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” We didn’t know of any other countries that offered such extraordinary protections to minorities and nonbelievers. The United States was really special.

Sometimes, the great American experiment didn’t work, but such failure was usually corrected fairly quickly. In any case, at least the guarantee of religious freedom was written down and signed; at least we knew how things were supposed to be.

Oh, America! Where else was religious freedom so clearly stated?

This has been a country where the official rule is that a Jew can be a Jew, a Sikh can be a Sikh. And if anyone made being a Jew or a Sikh in America a problem, there was the Supreme Court – with no agenda of its own – to set matters straight. We believed that certain truths were self-evident. You want to pray? Go ahead and pray. Just don’t force it on everyone else.

But now the Supreme Court has decided – in yet another 5-4 decision – that a prayer at the opening of town board meetings in Greece, N.Y. is no violation of the First Amendment because atheists and ministers of all faiths are welcome to register on the board’s “chaplain of the month” roster. The “chaplain of the month” gets to recite the invocation at town board meetings in Greece.

The New York Times has reported that the “chaplain of the month” in Greece was almost always a Christian, that two-thirds of the “chaplains of the month” made reference to “Jesus Christ,” “Jesus,” “your son,” or “the holy spirit,” and that one prayer ended: “We acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross.”

That sure sounds like the establishment of a religion, a point the Greece Town Board naturally denies.

If the town board is serious about representing all its constituents and if it had noticed – how could it not? – that almost all prayers were Christian in nature, it would have made a stronger effort towards inclusivity.

All the board had to do was to get out into the neighborhoods of Greece and proactively invite Jewish, Sikh, Muslim, Buddhist, Shintoist, and clergy or laity of other faiths to sign up on the “chaplain of the month” list. And since God is everywhere, board members could even have ventured into neighboring towns if, for example, there was no Buddhist temple in Greece but one in the next town over. Incidentally, Rochester, a city of about 211,000 people, is just eight miles east of Greece and is home to 12 synagogues, a Sikh temple, five mosques, and a Baha’i community among other places of worship.

Just hours after the Supreme Court ruling, the Greece Town Board opened its meeting with a prayer by the Rev. Peter Enyan-Boadu, who, the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle reported, “asked God to guide the board’s hearts and minds in the spirit of fairness.” He also called on God to bless the minds of the members of the town board, and finished with: “Thank you Lord, for being our source of guidance today.”

The Rev. Enyan-Boadu was from St. John the Evangelist Church.

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3 Responses to “Oops, There Goes the First Amendment”

  1. Marshall Rubin Says:

    Some feel that so long as a governing body invites all religions equal time to offer a prayer, that makes such a practice okay. But until the Supreme Court’s recent ruling, no religious invocation was acceptable due to the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause that was to maintain the long-cherished Separation of Church and State.
    Although I have no proof–only gut feelings I believe the GOP-appointed justices are corrupt and being rewarded for their onerous, anti-constitutional rulings. These five “justices” are calmly and collectively voting away our democracy, and soon it will be doomed unless something profound and drastic occurs to reverse this trend toward right-wing dictatorship!.

  2. bennett Says:

    One need not travel to Greece, NY to find City Coucil meetings opening up with a secular.
    It happens right here in Newburgh.


    I find no concillation in rotating of clergy from different demoninations. I even object when the announcer at Yankee Stadium during the seventh inning stretch calls for a “moment of silent PRAYER”. It should simply be a “moment of SILENCE”.

    If you pray silently during that moment, no one gives a damn, But i give a damn when any agency outside of a religion itself attempts to make prayer a shared communtiy activity.

  3. Michael Kaufman Says:

    I could not agree more nor said it better, Jeff. I just wish the First Amendment had been a little more specific so the intent, which seems obvious to any student of history, would need not be subject to interpretation. The framers clearly wanted no part of the fundamentalist Christian ideology imposed by the Puritans. Yet today’s fundamentalists act as though the Constitution validates their their belief that ours is specifically a “Christian” country. Your interpretation, as well as Bennett’s, is accurate. I think the framers believed that everyone has a right to freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion.

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