Greece v. Galloway v. Me

In expressing the majority’s decision that the town of Greece, N.Y., is constitutionally permitted to begin its meetings with prayer, Justice Kennedy said something I agree with. Not the opinion as a whole, just one thing:

“Even seemingly general references to God or the Father might alienate nonbelievers or polytheists,” he writes.

He’s right. Years ago, growing up Jewish in a small town in Virginia, I would have cared more about blatantly Christian rhetoric. I heard a lot of public prayer back then, and I used to hold my breath against the inevitable “in Christ’s name we pray” that preceded the “Amen.” That’s what the women who originally brought suit against the Town of Greece were after: not to eliminate the opening prayer, but to make it generic and therefore inclusive.

Now, as an atheist, I realize that no religious prayer, no matter how “generic,” is inclusive. I can tell because it doesn’t include me. Or my husband. Or my kids.

Justice Kennedy argued that since we can’t come up with totally inclusive prayer, we’re going to have to . . . permit the obviously exclusive kind. Seriously, that’s the way his logic worked.

Here’s a fun game: read his opinion yourself while trying to keep the innocent question, “Why not no prayer?” from popping into your head. Kennedy doesn’t answer that question; he just goes on about the fact that prayer serves to “unite lawmakers in their common effort” even though he just argued that no prayer is common to all and that people who don’t like the prayer can always leave the room. While feeling super united, I guess.

“Why not no prayer?”

I know, I know, it wasn’t the case at hand. The suit was far more modest than that; it accepts the basic premise that prayer before a town meeting is worthwhile—or at least appropriate. And to be honest, I understand why people want to pray at the beginning of public events. I understand wanting to express a sense of communal purpose, and to consecrate the place and time. Words have the power to do that.

But do they have to be religious words?

Let’s say 14 citizens thought it worthwhile to leave the comfort of their couches to sit on folding chairs in a chilly town hall. Fourteen citizens took the time to speak or vote or bear witness under fluorescent lights. There must be ceremonial language that does justice to all of them—no matter what their beliefs about God. There must be language that can solemnize the decision each made to participate in the public sphere.

It could start simply, so no one gets too embarrassed. Maybe the Town Clerk or the Chair of the Zoning Board would stand.

Good evening, and welcome to the [date] meeting of [name of governing body]. We gather as citizens and stewards of [name of municipality] to work together on behalf of this [town, city, etc],  . . .

Enter a bit of ceremony:

to honor its past, improve its present, and prepare for its future.

Finally, the prayer:

May a spirit of cooperation guide our discourse tonight, and may our efforts be ennobled by wisdom and courage.

Guess what two-syllable word signifies fervent assent, but not necessarily religious belief?



    1. “Agreed” works for me. But there’s a familiarity with “Amen” that’s hard to resist. I think when you’re making up new stuff, you have to consider people’s comfort level. But it seems that it makes YOU uncomfortable! Hard to get it just right . . .

      1. I guess it’s that “Amen” implies religion, to me, anyway. If we’re really going to do away with all religious overtones, as your WONDERFUL invocation so nicely does, why not go all the way? Let’s get rid of “amen” and make it “agreed”! Agreed??

    1. Thanks, Susan! I was so tempted to make it more flowery, more writery, but I kept thinking of the level of lofty that actual people can tolerate if they haven’t been hearing it since they were kids . . .

    1. Ah, but what about the passive voice near the end? 🙂 (I can’t remember which number it was is…#15 or 16 of 39…?)

      1. Ha! I think perhaps you’re confusing me with someone else . . . Honestly, Jim, I thought about “may wisdom and courage enoble our efforts,” but I liked ending on wisdom and courage, plus “efforts be enobled by” is much more pleasant to say than “enoble our efforts.” It’s more like writing a song than an essay.

  1. Rule 15. (Sometimes a good kid just goes bad.)
    Your piece reminded me of the sixties and the women’s movement when we discovered how tethered language is to bias – “Mrs,” “chairman,” “mandkind.” “Prayer,” “amen,” and “consecrate” seem to participate in a similar conspiracy, until you remember that “prayer” is from the Latin for “beg” and “amen” from the Hebrew for “so be it” – neither of which thoughts is inherently religious. Those words only need scouring to their original secular luster. “Consecrate,” though, well … Holy Whiskers!
    Good one, Kate.

  2. Although your piece was well written, it appears that you miss the point of what our founding fathers intended with regard to the separation of church and state. The “separation” was not intended to protect the government from religion – it was to protect religion from the government.


    1. I don’t know enough about the Founding Fathers to argue with you about their intentions. But doesn’t this fall into the category of protecting religion from government? My lack of religion should be protected from the government, too, should it not? Don’t my beliefs count?

  3. Good article, thanks! And a good idea. I like the “amen,” perfectly good word with secular possibilities.

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