That we've always done it that way, sometimes is a good reason to leave well enough alone. It's the approach the U.S. Supreme Court took yesterday, ruling that allowing a prayer at the start of a legislative meeting isn't a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The court ruled 5-4 that the town of Greece, N.Y., did not coerce anyone to pray. It can now continue a practice it began in 1999 when it replaced a moment of silence before its monthly town board meetings with an invocation delivered by local clergy.
Religious faith is at the core of who we are as a nation. The first Congress appointed official chaplains and the practice of an opening prayer has been maintained ever since. Many state legislatures and local governments have followed suit. The court has long held that these practices don't violate the First Amendment's prohibition on the government's establishment of religion.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wisely acknowledged the lingering furor directed at the high court for the perception it had erased religion from the public square. Eliminating legislative prayer, he wrote, would "create new controversy and begin anew" divisiveness along religious lines. While the dissenting justices agreed there should be no blanket ban, they said Greece fell short on inclusion. Until challenged in 2007, all the local clergy invited to pray were Christian, as are the vast majority of the town's people. The town argued it didn't willfully exclude other faiths, and that it subsequently sought out prayer leaders including a Jewish layman, and allowed a Wiccan princess to offer a prayer.
The dissenting view that prayer givers avoid proselytizing and that all faiths have the opportunity to participate is a wise one, even if not a constitutional requirement. Respect for the separation of church and state while leaving space in public forums for prayer will be successful only if all the voices that want to speak to the heavens are included.