From the editor: God bless America

2014-05-18T00:00:00Z From the editor: God bless America The Billings Gazette
May 18, 2014 12:00 am

God Bless America.

And, I don't mean that as some obligatory phrase tacked onto the end of a speech. I mean that quite literally.

God (capital G) bless America.

One of the reasons I feel that way is because of the 80-plus-page U.S. Supreme Court decision regarding prayer in government meetings.

I read through the entire ruling after several letter writers recently both took the opportunity to comment on the landmark decision. Quite frankly, you don't find many people getting into the details of Supreme Court rulings on the letters page.

More than that, though, a journalist can't help but be interested in the "Establishment Clause" and its relation to free speech. After all, freedom of the press, freedom of speech and freedom of religious choice are all cousins. You can't have one without the others.

Critics of the high court have maligned this ruling as proof-positive of a creeping brand of zealous, conservative Christianity taking root in our lives.

However, a careful reading of this important ruling once again demonstrates the miracle of our republic. The ruling walks a thoughtful, common-sense approach.

The heart of the matter is the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution, which states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." And that has given rise to the debate: Did the Constitutions framers want freedom of religion to mean freedom from religion?

This particular case before the Supreme Court came from Greece, N.Y., where the city council opens the meeting with a prayer from a rotating, informal group of folks from the religious community.

Here is what the high court determined:

Law cannot exist in a vacuum. The ruling said that the Establishment Clause must be "interpreted by reference to historical practices and understanding," pointing out that the First Congress appointed (and paid) chaplains, shortly after drafting the Constitution.

Moreover, the nation's highest court didn't just look at the prayer itself, it considered why we even have prayer in the first place. It concluded that prayer may not even be an expression of a specific religious belief, instead meant to lend focus, gravity and solemnity to the proceeding. In other words, talk of God and higher power gets people in the right mindset.

The court also made an important distinction, which hopefully will be remembered as we debate such things as prayer in school. One of the key determinations of the Greece ruling is that the courts determined that citizens were not being obliged to participate. Some in the original lawsuit believed that if they didn't participate some council members might take offense and might vote against their issue out of spite. But the cool legal analysis of the court said that was an impossible scenario to prove.

The court determined that folks were free to come and go during the prayer. And, it didn't rule out the possibility that some residents and citizens may even be offended by the very nature of having a prayer.

Yet, in what may be the court's finest, most succinct phrase it ruled, "Offense, however, does not equate to coercion."

What a brilliant statement, and one which should be etched on buildings. In this age of hypersensitivity, it's important to remember that just being offended shouldn't be cause for a lawsuit. Freedom of speech is not a safeguard against bad ideas or terrible words. In fact, it's a sometimes-unfortunate byproduct of our most cherished freedom.

The court also ruled that participants didn't have to participate in the prayer to participate in the meeting. And that prayer wasn't being invoked in the middle of business, but was more of a tradition, like the call to order.

Finally, the Greece decision reasoned that if the Supreme Court outlined what prayer was acceptable and what type was not, it would actually cause the courts to violate the Establishment Clause. That is, courts would have to become the arbiter of what is permissible prayer at a meeting and what is not. If that would have happened, it would have been exactly what the framers of the Constitution feared most: That government would sanction some religious thought and ban other types.

The nation's highest court only had one choice — allow prayer in public meetings if it was to follow the Constitution.

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