The old joke about prayer in schools — as long as there are final exams ... you know the rest — came within a single vote of applying also to local governmental boards and those with business to bring before them. But on the morning in question, it appears Justice Anthony Kennedy, who is to the Supreme Court what LeBron James is to the Miami Heat — its irrepressible swing man — arose from his bed on the side of the angels. Kennedy joined with the four (generally) reliable conservative justices to form a slender majority that blessed not just prayer, but overtly sectarian prayer, as a constitutional part of any local government proceeding. As Kennedy, writing for the majority, observed, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.” This is an astonishingly refreshing conclusion, one that openly refutes the infantilism that characterizes too much of modern America. From the forced resignation of the CEO at Mozilla over a campaign contribution, to the rash of graduation speakers being denied their invitations to the lectern, to countless everyday meltdowns by your fellow citizens wearing unimaginably thin skins, we are awash in Americans convinced they have a fundamental right not to be offended. Or challenged. Or contradicted. Not that those easily annoyed belong exclusively to one side of the political spectrum. I am reminded of the nonsensical uproar — primarily from the right — over Coca-Cola’s Super Bowl commercial in which “America the Beautiful” was rendered in a variety of languages.
Now comes the Supreme Court to remind us that we are, or at least can be, better than that. Stronger. Wiser. Nobler. More open to inspiration from unexpected sources. These invocations, after all, are ceremonial, designed to encourage lawmakers and those attending meetings, Kennedy wrote, to ponder “shared ideals and common ends before they embark on the fractious business of governing,” a small moment that neither condemns, coerces or proselytizes, but “serves (a) legitimate function.” The case emerged from Greece, N.Y., a town of 96,000 outside Rochester on Lake Ontario. The city council’s tradition of inviting local clergy to open meetings with prayer tilted lopsidedly Christian (as is the town’s population), arousing the dismay of Jewish and atheist plaintiffs who complained the practice obliterated the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The court’s four liberal justices sided with the plaintiffs, and I am not unsympathetic to their point of view. In a more perfect union, deliverers of invocations at secular events would offer prayers that honor “In God We Trust” while striving for universality. But the court’s minority would have required the prior review of prayer for hints of sectarianism, an onerous burden that would have had the practical effect of killing, for local governments, a practice that continues unfettered at the state and federal level. As reported by the Tampa Tribune’s José Patiño Girona, area boards have long histories of opening with prayer that seeks to satisfy Kennedy’s ideal of uniting and inspiring, some by inviting area clergy to handle the duty, others by entrusting elected officials. Pasco County commissioners rely on the clerk of court, while Pasco’s cities tend to favor persons of the cloth. Then there’s the Pasco School Board, which opens with “a thought for the day” presented by one of its members. On that note, here’s a thought for this day: The majority’s opinion, as expressed by Justice Kennedy, expresses a confidence in an American virtue that doesn’t get much publicity anymore, that our firmly held and deeply examined convictions can weather, and perhaps even gain from, a minute or two of contrarian speech delivered in goodwill. Something to remember on the inevitable morning a Hindu priest invokes Vishnu’s blessing on a budget hearing.