Legal Boundaries to Prayer

The Supreme Court heard arguments this week in the case, Town of Greece v. Galloway. The case examines the constitutionality of legislative prayers.

The crux of the disagreement comes from the question of how a prayer can be non-sectarian. The prayer giver’s religious background surely must taint the prayer with that viewpoint, the appellant and their coterie argue. They seem to rely on the historical aspect to defend the constitutionality in doing so.

The appellee argues the contrary, that there can be clean prayer, free of denominational frictions that would put off all but the staunchly non-religious and the pure minorities believing, for example, in true polytheism.

Several examples come to mind that support the latter. The first being pseudocode in computing. Pseudocode represents the equivalent of the non-denominational prayer, the secular invocation.

In computing we have various languages with various syntax and conventions beyond. But psuedocode exists to express computational ideas in a way that avoids the rigor and trappings of any particular language.

Further, we see examples of pseudocode that belie their origins from a real language. The use of an odd var or an int or of a particular way of writing a name (eg, open_door() versus openDoor()). But still, it remains pseudocode.

Another example comes from the Spanish-speaking priest. The priest gives mass in Spanish, prays privately in Spanish, reads the Bible in Spanish. But when asked to give the invocation for an English-speaking legislative body, the priest may give the prayer in English.

The priest does not believe that her gods will not hear her English prayer. Or if the prayer lacks certain accoutrements of her typical prayer in a sectarian context, she does not worry that the gods will ignore it.

No, we understand and expect that public prayer, meant for public purpose and public consumption, will be constructed appropriately.

That said, the question arises of what remedies or tests might be drawn to the task of both allowing these public prayers while limiting their sectarian nature.

One option would be to adopt a test similar to the so-called Miller test of obscenity cases. This would be ill-advised, as that test violates itself in ways that appeal to the prurient interest.

A test asking whether the prayer taken as a whole appeals to sectarian concerns, and uses patently sectarian language, and lacks serious secular spiritual value? We need less of this sort of hand-wringing law.

We wanted them to behave, we really did. Just a good, clean, non-denominational quasi-Christian prayer; just what we ordered. But there, in the home stretch, they started ranting about the golden hemorrhoids from 1 Samuel and now we must all be rebaptized in the ink of the First Article of Amendment.

Another option, even less appealing, would bar invocations and prayers entirely. No reminder of the higher purpose in legislating, just right into passing laws that benefit the corporations that funded the campaigns. Talk about bleak. Imagine how bad things would get! Prayer must be the only thing preventing the federal legislature from outright gridlock… oh.

But still, barring prayer would lose something important. The ability to add some timid poetry to the start of a legislative session. The occasion to pause and reflect, to acknowledge the judgment of the generations to come.

Computing attempts many other options. Whitelists, blacklists, graylists. Bayesian filters. Maybe a few prayers would be barred for sounding like they wanted to help you enhance your genitals. Most would probably slip through.

The whitelist could employ an official governmental prayer writer, and maybe some committees appointed to determine the secularity of the written prayers. A blacklist would work better for specific prayer givers who had offended in the past.

Rotations. “We’ll split up the week. You can have lymphoma, tuberculosis and —” It might have worked for Jack and Marla, but the court seems to acknowledge that requiring such a scheme, imposing it, would not. It smacks too much of separate, but equal.

Guidelines seem to be the order of the day, but the court may not place them in their main decision, instead trying to suggest that legislatures adopt some common sense in the concurring opinions. Guidelines to be offered to prayer givers, such as, “Just say no — to overtly religious calls in your prayers.”

I’m starting to think the aforementioned example of a Spanish priest may be the best remedy of all. Have the prayer be given in a language few, if any, understand. Nobody can claim to be offended if the prayer gets beeped out in Morse code, or belched out in Latin.

All rise, bow your heads, and make sure your tray tables and seatbacks in their full upright and locked positions, for the opening prayer.