WASHINGTON (RNS) The great rejoicing after the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling on public prayer reminded me of the infamous line from an officer who commented on the destruction of a village during the Vietnam War: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it!”

There isn’t much to celebrate in the high court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway to allow sectarian prayers to be spoken in all kinds of public meetings. The big loser in this judicial decision was prayer itself — its uniqueness and its authenticity.

Demonstrators hold signs reading "Keep your theocracy off my democracy" in front of the Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2013 during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Demonstrators hold signs reading “Keep your theocracy off my democracy” in front of the Supreme Court on Nov. 6, 2013, during oral arguments of Greece v. Galloway. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

This most recent decision from the court, like many before it, has provided a “win” for conservative forces. But it comes at the price of a broadside against (if not a compromise of) religion. Why? Because prayer is a spiritual practice that’s better defined theologically rather than politically or legally.

Frankly, the 5-4 decision in Greece v. Galloway dealt a legal blow to the authenticity of the spiritual practice of prayer. It’s little more than a ruling on the legality of making social, political and governmental statements (not personal prayers) in civic sessions in order to be heard by those assembled rather than by God.

For me and many people of faith, prayer is a personal communication with God. Communion with God takes place at a level in the soul, spirit and mind of an individual that is untouchable by government or any other external force. A proper theological, spiritual understanding of prayer leads to the conclusion that nothing — no other person or institution — can either prevent a person from praying or force a person to pray.

Attempts to infuse government proceedings with public prayers are risky at best, and they are always vulnerable to prostitution and manipulation. That is why in the scriptures of many religious traditions, including Christianity, public prayer is discouraged. Jesus even found it offensive when the “hypocrites” prayed on the street corner to draw attention to themselves:  “When you pray,” he cautioned his followers, “go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” Authentic prayer is not about impressing or instructing other people.

That’s not to say there is no place for communal prayer.  Some segments of Judaism, for example, require a “minyan” — a quorum of 10 people — for some observances, including reading the Torah. Muslims often say their daily prayers in groups. Communal prayer in a house of worship, however, is very different from a public prayer in a civic setting.

There is one form of public prayer that is distinct from others: a prayer articulated in a house of worship as a contribution to worship, whether spoken spontaneously or scripted or as part of a liturgical reading. My “pastoral prayers” offered in public worship are explicitly directed to God — with the awareness that my overheard communion with God may provide help for others wanting to pray, assure people that they are being prayed for or be embraced by other worshippers who join my prayers and make them their prayers.

Believe me, the kind of public prayers at the center of Greece v. Galloway hardly qualify as such personal and spiritual acts of communion with God. I have listened to public prayers in school board meetings, city council gatherings and legislative sessions. Most frequently, they are statements of public opinion or imperatives for civic action rather than an individual’s honest communion with God.

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all Americans regardless of faith or belief. Photo courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications

The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all Americans regardless of faith or belief. Photo courtesy Rabinowitz/Dorf Communications

This image is available for Web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

The high court made clear that its decision does not protect public prayers that negate others’ religions or convey incivility. In other words, the court affirmed that prayers must meet its definition of civil standards. I favor that part of the ruling, but, honestly, I do not want a Supreme Court justice — or anybody else in government — trying to define what I can or I cannot say in my private communion with God.

Every time we submit a sacred act to a civic body, and seek a ruling on its appropriateness in a diverse public, we allow others who are not thinking theologically to compromise the most sacred aspects of our religious practices. When that happens, regardless of who wins in court, religion and its holy practices lose everywhere.

(The Rev. C. Welton Gaddy is president of Interfaith Alliance, an organization dedicated to protecting religious freedom for all Americans regardless of faith or belief.)



  1. The Supreme Court is a disgrace to America.

    The Establishment clause: “Congress shall make no law establishing a religion”
    How dare the Supreme Court violate the clear directive of the Constitution.

    The court went further and said, “prayers must meet its definition of civil standards.”

    This is ignorant nonsense.
    It is like telling people to play with matches without allowing them to bring a fire extinguisher.

    Simply telling me that I must acknowledge the presence of a ‘god’ in my town meeting is itself an uncivil act. I see God as a genocidal tyrant and if he exists he has no place in my town meeting. Keep your God in church and AT YOUR HOME!

    The Atheists and Agnostics are absolutely being cut out.
    I am therefore being forbidden to say something “uncivil” like:

    Praise Darwin!
    Praise Evolution!
    Praise Science!


    • One more addendum:
      The Freedom from Religion Foundation should now challenge SCOTUS on what qualifies as a “civil standards.”

      Invoking Yahweh, The Genocidal God of Rape, Slavery and Human Sacrifice
      in any public prayer should be forbidden as it should fit the sort of ‘incivility’
      that SCOTUS has outlawed.

    • Darwin was a curious man using crude investigative methods and developing theories which have subsequently proven untenable and untestable. You can praise him if you wish however it is similar to celebrating the flat earth theory.

      Evolution means what? Origins? No honest scientist examining the facts buys into it, but it’s popular. Go ahead, praise it… whatever it is.

      Science (from Latin scientia, meaning “knowledge”) is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of “testable” explanations and predictions about the universe.
      True science is the discovery of what the Creator created. So, I suggest you praise the Creator rather than His creation.

  2. I am a Wiccan. I was a Councilwoman among 5 Christians, 1 Jew and me. One night they turned to me (still in the broom closet) assuming I was a Christian and asked me to say the invocation. Blessed Bast I was prepared. I couldn’t say “Dear Lord” and leave out The Goddess. I began with “Dear Creator” allowing everyone to fill in their blank and proceeded to ask for guidance and justice in our decisions in our public entrusted obligations-plus a bit more. No one’s “feelings” were hurt and it didn’t denigrate into a religious discussion.

    I believe before any public discussion the participants show be reminded of their obligation to “do the right thing” and park their personal opinions at the door.

    Had I been brave enough, my prayer would have been: Dear Lord and Lady. We come to you tonight knowing we are entrusted with making decisions affecting our community. Guide us with your light and let us not forget the trust placed in us. Let us protect against self-interest, the interests of greed and stand before you in full knowledge that our decisions will affect human lives, the animals that call it home, the plants that nourish them and us and the land that supports us all. Let us not make a decision which would harm any. I call on the 4 quarters for protection. So mote it be.

    And then I would have sprinkled some salt for purity and protection from evil.

    Don’t think that would have gone over well.

    As for a true prayer at a public event, I would have been put out had it ended, “In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost”.

    Whatever you want to call it-invocation or prayer-some words should be said to hopefully remind people they are there not for themselves but to govern.

  3. joe bailey hyden

    Mr. Gaddy is not theologian and not a legal scholar; rather, he is a politician; and likely would make a nice neighbor.

    But under his personal, private religious theories, prayer would be prohibited at the presidential Inaugural, would call for the re-writing of the Inaugural speeches of President Kennedy and every other President, would prohibit President Obama from closing his speeches with “God Bless America”, would have prevented prayer at the national memorial service after 9/11 and would have prevented the message by Billy Graham.
    Both Mr Gaddy and the Supreme Court minority would do well to read “The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction” by Professor Akhil Reed Amar of Yale

    joe bailey hyden

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