Saturday, May 10, 2014

Why Justice Kennedy Doesn't Get It

Like most other American atheists and secularists, I'm disappointed with the SCOTUS Town of Greece v. Galloway decision which strengthens government endorsement of religious sectarianism in local official legislative settings.  I believe that the ruling  was wrong on  many levels. But I'd like to focus on one in particular: the cluelessness  factor.  For example, Justice Anthony Kennedy who wrote the decision for the  majority determined that members of the audience who are bothered by the  sectarian (read Christian) nature of prayers recited by  government officials to open a public meeting (such as a city council session) are "mature adults" who are not coerced to listen,  supposedly unlike to children in similar circumstances of peer and authority pressure, and are  free to leave and return when the prayer is finished.

But Kennedy who evidently made this smug assertion from the perspective of Christian privilege misses the point, perhaps deliberately.   For example  if such an invocation is recited,  is the audience expected to stand and /or bow their heads during the benediction? If so, when a public official  gives a Christian oriented invocation among a like-minded group of constituents,  those in the minority maybe even a single individualwho refuse to rise or who may otherwise register dissent may well be subject to severe social opprobrium  and reprisals, and perhaps even criminal charges of creating a disturbance if they vocally protest. But why should any non-Christian be put in the awkward position of having to make such a choice  and to be made to feel like an outsider in his or her own community? For a more articulate discussion in accordance with this line of reasoning, click here to read Justice Elena Kagan's opinion  which she wrote in behalf of the dissenting Supreme Court minority in this case.

Significantly, in the Town of Greece decision, the three justices on the Supreme Court who are Jewish all dissented with the majority opinion.  Perhaps they may  been subjected to such discrimination, and hence saw how the above ruling could lead to negative consequences. An event somewhat similar to the above group pressure scenario happened to me. At a company  where I once worked, I was the only Jew in my  department and experienced an incident there in which I was deliberately placed into an an outsider position vis-a-vis my non-Jewish co-workers. What happened was that I attended what was supposed to be (as in previous years) a "secular"  Christmas season office luncheon.  But just  as we were about to start eating, the department supervisor turned to one of my co-workers, a lay preacher, and asked him if he would like to offer a Christmas prayer,  a request to which he eagerly consented.  They both knew that I was the only Jew there and asked me if I would like to step out and return when the grace was finished, By  turning the party into a religious occasion, they evidently didn't care about  what an awkward position they were putting me in, especially with everyone watching to see what I would do. Because I was totally blind-sided,  I was uncertain how to handle the matter, so  I complied and left the room. When I came back, I was upset but said nothing.   Perhaps I should have complained afterwards to the department manager or to personnel.  Instead, I let the matter drop. But to this day I recall the incident with a mixture of embarrassment and anger.

Granted, the above episode was in a workplace setting not a government held public assembly.  But in both cases the pattern was identical: an attempt by those in power or authority to  inculcate or reinforce in dissident individuals a sense of separateness and exclusion from their peers or community.   Such imposition of majority religious beliefs on others  for their personally held convictions is not only a violation of the Constitution, but of human dignity as well.

Oh BTW, according to the New Testament (Matt:6:5-6), Jesus admonishes his followers to pray  only in private and not to make a spectacle of themselves by performing this act of worship in public. So if Christians would only follow this exhortation, cases like Town of Greece would likely never happen in the first place.

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