The Supreme Court of the United States made a mistake Monday when it ruled that it is generally not an unconstitutional establishment of religion for city councils to open their meetings with a prayer.
But it is mistake that will, if wiser heads prevail at the local level, do minimal damage, because the court’s ruling is permissive, not mandatory.
The 5-4 decision in the case of the Town of Greece v. Galloway is unlikely to move any local body that does not already overlay its secular duties with a religious component to launch such an unwise practice.
The ruling allows those cities whose leaders know better — Salt Lake City among them — to continue to avoid even the suggestion that a governmental jurisdiction favors one faith over another, or favors belief over non-belief.
In upholding the right of the town board of Greece, N.Y., to open its meetings with overtly Christian prayers, the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy adopted the jurisprudence of, "But we’ve always done it this way."
He held that no one is really being forced to participate in or endorse any particular religious observance or tradition as a price of admission to a public meeting. They can always just ignore what is being said, Kennedy wrote, or even wait outside while the prayer is being offered.
But it would be much more in keeping with the American belief in separation of church and state — the belief that has spared our society the kinds of bloody disagreements that usually accompany the mixture of the sacred and the secular — for local governments to take their guidance from the minority opinion by Justice Elena Kagan.
Her much more powerful and realistic argument is that no government agency should skate anywhere near behavior that so much as hints that citizens who have business before it will receive preferable treatment if they follow, or pretend to follow, a particular religious faith.
It is wrong for any government to even subliminally suggest that a citizen is more, or less, likely to win a contract, a permit or an appropriation based, not on the soundness of their argument or the justness of their cause, but on the religious faith that they do, or do not, share with those in power.
The court, though, properly left it up to each city to decide whether it wants to needlessly clutter its public gatherings with references, often watered down beyond recognition, to beings and beliefs that not all their citizens share.
Local government should earn this trust, and do away with prayers at public meetings.
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