Supreme Court prayer ruling may spur new alliances

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, addresses the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

STANFORD, Calif.  (RNS)  This week’s Supreme Court ruling allowing sectarian prayers at public meetings dealt a body blow to atheist organizations.

That was the assessment of David Silverman, president of American Atheists, speaking Tuesday (May 6) to a group of nonbelievers at Stanford University. He then described a scenario that may raise eyebrows among some atheists: working with religious groups to fight against the ruling.

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, addresses the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012 on the National Mall in Washington. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

David Silverman, president of American Atheists, addresses the Reason Rally on March 24, 2012, on the National Mall in Washington. RNS photo by Tyrone Turner

“That’s what we have to do, not only organize the atheists, but the Satanists, the Scientologists,” he said. In a conversation before his talk, he added Muslims, Jews and Hindus. “We as atheists have the responsibility to urge them and push them and get them in there to get their prayers” said at public meetings.

That’s a change for a man who has famously described religion as a “poison.” And it is emblematic, observers say, of the change that may result from the majority opinion in Greece v. Galloway, which found that prayers citing “the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross” are permissible before government business.

Other secularists are likewise convinced that now is the time for atheists to join forces with members of minority faiths.

“Not only does this rally the full spectrum of nontheists, it angers many Americans who are part of a minority religion and also many Christians who believe firmly in the separation of  religion and government,” said Edwina Rogers, executive director of Secular Coalition for America, an umbrella group that lobbies on behalf of more than a dozen nontheist groups, including American Atheists.

Jacques Berlinerblau, a Georgetown University professor and author of “The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously,” said the court ruling is “both a setback and an opportunity.”

“The logic of the majority (decision) is absurd,” he said. “And in this sense, it might galvanize political actors who haven’t cooperated much in recent years to rediscover their common concerns and goals.”

Already, some nontheist groups are mobilizing. The American Humanist Association, whose legal department filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs, an atheist and a Jew, has announced it is organizing and assisting nonbelievers who wish to deliver humanist invocations at government meetings. Meanwhile, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has announced an award for the best nonreligious prayer.

Ron Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, a humanist advocacy organization, said CFI is “studying its options,” among them outreach to religious groups, which it has done before, he said.

But, he cautions, there may be hurdles.

“There may still be reluctance among some religious bodies to cooperate openly with atheists, agnostics and humanists, especially when it comes to lobbying public officials,” Lindsay said. “It’s a question of whether respect for fundamental rights and a shared concern over government’s implicit endorsement of Christianity can trump theological misgivings.”

Fred Edwords, national director of the United Coalition of Reason, an organization that fosters cooperation among different secular groups, added: “I think we are about as united as we’re going to get.”

There are good reasons why atheists and religious minorities may not come together, said Anthony Pinn, a Rice University professor and author of a memoir about his move from Christianity to atheism.

“Nontheists want all theistic ritual practices removed from public discourse, and (religious) groups are more likely to want their perspective represented in the ‘approved’ theistic ritual practices” permitted by the decision, he said.

But Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, said previous Supreme Court decisions have rallied unlikely coalitions that successfully fought to overturn or change unpopular rulings: the Dred Scott decision united anti-slavery advocates of both races; Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld a law against homosexual sex, resulted in straight and gay alliances.

Still, Haynes said, “I may be wrong, but I don’t see this decision in that league.” Instead, he is looking for other strategies, such as further challenges to the legality of sectarian prayer from secular groups.

David Niose, legal director of the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said the decision will likely strengthen bonds between secular groups, from the most militant to the most liberal. And that large umbrella may attract some religious groups.

“If we start seeing excessive prayers to Jesus in public forums, all kinds of non-Christians — not just atheists and humanists — will no doubt find common ground in their opposition to it,” he said.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • To help commenters’ documentation, dig through the hard work these folks put in on your behalf:

    Now hear the parable of the missing plaintiff (reprise):

    In the above video clip, Ms. Nancy Braiman, of Brighton, NY, identifies herself as Jewish; but at the time Ms. Braiman first became offended (February 2007), she told the local Democrat & Chronicle she was Unitarian Universalist (UU).

    This was true: I saw her at UU services where I was a member of a congregation. Because I discerned the mischief these folks were up to, I first took to a Democrat & Chronicle blog to warn Greece of the threat posed by UU activist zealots.

    Neither Ms. Braiman nor the UU “faith” were the most suitable for a test-case plaintiff, so by the fall two actual Greece residents were recruited, neither of whom would identify as UU (shhh!). It became clear to me that they were ramping up a test case.

    In November, 2007, after reading about their public meeting on the prayer issue at the Greece Town Hall, I called up the Greece Town Supervisor, and I laid the whole scenario out as I saw it unfolding. I told them that this was a common UU/ACLU strategy, that it was bigger than just a couple of local complainants, that if they could not COERCE the town with the THREAT of a LAWSUIT, they would indeed FILE A LAWSUIT, and they would have a lot of pro-bono ACLU esquires jumping all over the town, JUST LIKE HOW THE UUA CAMPAIGNED AGAINST LOCAL BOY SCOUTS.

    So now it can be told, I have the satisfaction of a small part in 12-696, being a kind of Paul Revere to the citizenry of the Town of Greece, NY, way back in 2007.

  • I’m supporting a Bill to disband all non-Christians from the Armed Services.

    If the United States is a “Christian-only” country where only “Christian Chaplains” are allowed to deliver government prayers there is no ‘freedom’ to fight for.

    Like the foolish Dredd Scott decision before the civil war, the end of freedom for the minority will bring nothing but upheaval – this is a completely unnecessary can of worms.

    This Roberts court is ignorant and the decision must be reversed.

  • Frank,

    Why should a Non-Christian defend a Christian
    if we are not both Citizens of equal standing?

  • Max,
    We should defend each other (and all) because we are ALL citizens. Make no mistake about it, I am a church going Christian, this does not mean I think your rights or anyone else’s should take a back seat to mine. Everyone should be entitled to whatever faith, or lack there of, they choose, and having something contrary to your own views forced down your throat while trying to exercise your civic rights is NOT acceptable!

  • You are essentially saying your rights are more important that those of anyone else because you are a church going Christian. That no consideration should be given to others.

    Being in a nation where everyone is not expected to believe as you do means you have to accept the existence of a lot of views which are contrary to your own. You don’t get to isolate yourself from ideas you don’t agree with. You don’t get to use your religious views as an excuse to treat others poorly. Your right to religious expression ends where it does harm to others.

    Christian Fundamentalists evidently believe and act as if the government is only there to serve them and all others don’t deserve consideration. It is what they mean when they claim “America is a Christian Nation”. It shows an overall lack of respect for religious freedom. This is despite invoking such notions when someone rebukes them for doing something obnoxious, uncivil or illegal.

    [an aside: the “force down your throat” idiom is so overused by Christians that it takes on a humorous connotation these days]

  • I bet one could easily find a verse of two written by Paul that apply to this, as they all gang up on the followers of Christ.

  • @LINDA,

    I am no longer an equal citizen in America. And that is not a joke.
    Your personal feelings don’t matter.

    A town meeting can force me to reveal my religious beliefs
    and suffer the consequences whatever they may be. It is coercive.
    It strongly recommends that I stand up and pray with whatever Chaplain is being handed to me.

    But if I speak at the meeting I will be judged harshly by some who happen to hate my lack of belief.

    And that is what Justices Roberts and Scalia wanted.

    A Christian nation under THE LAW and they saw this case as a way to cram it into position.
    And it is Sharia Law in a small town!

    I cannot count the ways in which this is unAmerican.

  • If NON Christians are not protected equally under the Law – I have no reason to defend a Christian.

    I am not an equal citizen in America.

    I no longer have the right to be silent in my town meetings about my religion without opening myself up to serious consequences.

    Shame on this Court.

  • I no longer have the right to be silent in my town meetings on the matter of my religion. My town government can force me to reveal my religion or lack thereof before the town council.

    By calling on the Town Meeting community to stand for a prayer I AM BEING COMPELLED TO MAKE A PUBLIC VOTE on whether I believe in a god or approve of prayer and to state by this method quite publicly my degree of religiosity.

    Since people will hold my lack of faith against me, I am thereby forced to subject myself to the consequences and judgment not from a God but from my fellow citzens; subjecting myself and opening up for consideration in a personal way my motivations at the Town Meeting to unfair religious bias.

    American freedom is being blotted out!
    This will have a very chilling effect on local government.

  • I am a Christian pastor who regularly offers an invocation at the local City Council meeting. My community has local rules that require the prayer not be sectarian and the people present are not asked to stand. Even the evangelical Christians follow the local rules, which predate Town of Greece. In five years – and I attend almost every City Council meeting out of civic interest — only twice have I felt these local rules were not observed. In one of those cases, I know the City Attorney warned the individual.

    I offered the invocation on May 6, the day after “Town of Greece” was issued. Although based on my understanding of it, I could now offer a highly sectarian prayer, I chose instead to read a secular poem that made no mention of a diety while still affirming the value of being a community that works together for the well-being of all.

    I did this intentionally, to demonstrate to non-Christians that a Christian pastor can be respectful of the pluralism in our community. I will continue to practice that respect.

  • Your comment was wonderful too, Ms. Winston. But don’t you think revchicoucc would open himself up to vicious personal attacks from Christianists should he reveal where he shows respect for all Americans?

  • Many Americans believe the Christianists who are trying to force their political “beliefs” upon all other Americans this way are NOT followers of Christ, mike.

  • Well. I had not thought of that. I do try to think the best of people and I would hope most Christians – or people of any faith or none – would be respectful. It is up to the Rev (who I have contacted off this site as well).

  • @revchicoucc,

    ” I could now offer a highly sectarian prayer”

    Yes, and we could notice which people in the room would not be standing up – thereby publicly casting a vote for or against religion – and access their decency by their reaction to such a prayer.

    Then some in the room can give those atheists exactly what they deserve.

    Your comment is appreciated.
    But this is a chilling effect on the communities. Religion has absolutely no place in any government meetings – a national disgrace.

  • This is ridiculous I am a certified atheists and I do not believe prayer works and we should not have them in public ground or in public office strictly because it is offense to me and my belief system.
    Who not invented the idea of prayer if not but the religiously motivted, atheist did not come up with prayers, I personally think all prayers are a bunch of crap, with a bunch of people bending over praying to nothing, praying to air and it does not work!!!
    The proposition that prayers work (which the religious ideology first came up with) first needs to be demonstrated to work before I can accept and I am being forced to accept someone’s idea, that they have the right to impose their idea that I find offensive, especially offensive to most non believers and atheist such as myself.
    The proposition of prayers and that prayers work!!!
    If I was to publicly attest my ideas and have the right to in public…which is all prayers are fake…all religion is b.s, and all the religion who practice prayer are being gullible and scammed…im pretty sure the public, especially from the religious side would take great offense to it.
    And now my freedom from religion is being trampled over to those who want to express their religious freedom to offend me, and the idea that prayers work and I should have to listine to it, something that has not shown to work!!!
    is equally offensive to me, non believers do not prayer, allot of us think prayers are offensive, Christians have right to express a view that can offend me but atheist and non believers don’t have the right to do the same thing.
    this is not an equal America, my rights are being trampled over in favor for the rights of the religiously motivated and that is not fair.

  • The more insidious part of any such exercise is that the CHILDREN are conditioned ( or ‘groomed’) subconsciously or directly to adopt the religion being spruiked.
    That’s child-abuse of the worst order; physical injuries heal: early mental derangement remains for life.

    On this issue the over-riding concern/defense should be in consideration of children.

  • Goodonyer, mate.
    Good is as good does, to (mis)quote Forest Gump.
    There’s no need whatever to link caring and compassion to a deity of any sort. They’re different issues altogether.

  • if religiously motivated people have the right to practice there ceremonial practice which is highly offensive to us atheist in the form of prayers then I think us atheist should have a ceremony practice in the form that shows how prayers don’t work, how its wishful thinking and that people who actually practice prayer and getting down on their knees re praying to nothing! lol
    If religiously motivated people have the right to practice a ceremony where its highly offensive to most non believers and atheist then think the same rights should apply
    How do u like them apples.
    that is the only thing I can agree on about this posts.

  • Yep. Great concept.
    The problems arise when a competitive ‘religious league’ is introduced.
    Y’can’t have religious wars without religion; and the Twin Towers could still be standing.

  • Right concept: wrong conclusion.

    Any civilised and half-intelligent society should dump religion ONLY on the ground that it doesn’t work; it displays no useful consequences and wastes enormous resources of all sorts.
    Even Jesus wasn’t a christian.
    ….and even god doesn’t go to church. (synogogue/temples/mosques.)
    (Not sure, looking around, that they’re out and about doing good and useful things, either…..But I guess you can’t have everything.))

  • thanks rev for your comment and your behavior regarding the invocations you gave, but I have one question, which really is at the core of this, what place does religion have in the operations of a government body? I know that it ha been, and continues to be, and is strengthened by this decision, but what place does it really have? “render unto Caesar…” I know theists will argue that it gives the council strength, or reminds them of their responsibility, or may even instill “the fear of god’ into them, but should our government’s responsibility come from that, and not just their responsibility to their constituency? and as max, has pointed out, a simple gesture, like not standing during the prayer, as some councils surely do (though not yours, it seems) would easily single out those that don’t conform, and who are “the other”, and who can easily be discriminated against there. the solution is to keep prayer out of government.

  • though we non-believers may see an advantage in joining with minority religions, what does it really get us? a diversity of prayer opening government meetings? sure, it will beat back the Christians, and maybe change 100% Christian invocations in some places to a lower percentage. and how will it be decided, by the percent of each religious minority in the community?

    I really don’t think it’s the right direction, considering that our real goal should be to get all prayer removed from government, whether local or national. and so theists won’t get their panties in a twist, I don’t mean you, or government officials have to stop believing (though I think that really would be best), but please observe your religion in places other than where our constitution said it should not be. it is not treading on your religious freedom, but it is supporting the freedom of all, whether religious or not.

  • You right you cant have everything, if I had the freedom to express my beliefs in the form of a ceremony, that is more likely to cause great offense to someone at everyone elses time who have a different believe then yours, then how is that fair?
    You are expressing a view in a public government setting, having people be quiet for you, so you can practice your prayers which is a religiously practiced ceremony that offends non believers, we think its a fake and all for show.
    You don’t realize how much prayer offends someone, to see other grown ups get on their kness we believe for nothing
    You have the right to practice prayers any where and anytime you want but if its at a public government setting where everyone has to be quiet for you, and abide by your rules and respect something that is considered highly offensive to someone then that isn’t fair.
    That is prayers.

  • I shouldn’t have to sit in a government setting at the expense of my own time,the public time, and on tax payers money listening to something I do not believe in or agree with and which I find highly offensive, which is prayers.
    Adults getting on their kness I believe for nothing!!!
    Just like Christians should not have to sit and listine to on their time, and on tax payers money listening to someone spout they believe is non sense, that can be equally highly offensive to them, like big foot or the lochness monster.
    The proposition of prayers, that allot of people don’t believe in and don’t agree with is equally valid as anything else.

  • I have an uncle that said he saw big foot, I do not believe in him nor do I respect him.
    I shoudnt have to listine to someone on my time spout out what I believe is non sense, something I do not believe in nor agree with.
    that is prayers.

  • Just wait till a city council decides “Hey, I’d like to score easy points by being seen as pious.”

    You poor Christians have absolutely no clue what you have unleashed.

  • This kind of partnership is nothing new. Theists and non-theists have successfully worked together for a common cause in Americans United for Separation of Church & State since the 1940s.

  • The problem with Atheists being offended by prayer is that there is nothing for Atheists to be offended by. It is a time to talk to our God. We have that right just like you have the right to not talk to the god that you do not believe in. The only logical reason that any atheist should be upset is that they feel threatened by prayer, but prayer does not attempt to take anything from an atheist. It is illogical that an atheist would be upset with having to profess their faith in a public meeting due to doing absolutely nothing, yet you are sitting here persecuting Christians, their prayer, and us professing what we believe through our prayer. If we face your persecution, then you can face the persecution of those who obviously aren’t following what the Gospel has called us to do. The Gospel is a message of love, never persecuting others. You can see that Jesus preached a message of love and forgiveness, and He loved even those who didn’t accept Him.

  • @Hunter – you do not get it.

    Most of us Atheists are former Christians – prayer is NOT the problem.

    The problem is….

    Rulings like this one put one group (Christians) against everyone else in a public way at a town meeting.
    If I do not stand up when the prayer is being said, I am visibly ‘voting’ against prayer in government. Though it is my right to reject prayer in Government, some Christians in the room will not interpret my sitting it out in that light – they will make a judgement against me as being anti-social or, atheist, or agnostic, or Jewish or some such ‘other’ group.
    That will affect the rest of the Town Meeting.
    When it is my turn to talk, or voice an opinion on some matter – my lack of belief in God and my non-belief in Jesus in particular WILL BE HELD AGAINST ME AND MISUNDERSTOOD.

    And it opens the door to larger problems.

    This decision is a nightmare to America – the ONLY COUNTRY ON EARTH which remained completely free of religion in its constitution. A Ronald Reagan level of American ignorance has polluted our system and destroyed what Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine tried to build.

    All is lost now.

  • I am a wartime veteran (Korean War) and an atheist. I am as American as you are but you, and the SCOTUS justices who made this decision, seem to want to tell me that somehow I am a deficient American.

    Naturally, I resent that..

  • I get where you are coming from. I understand that our country gives you an absolute right to hold your own religion. I completely respect everyone of every religion or all thereof; however, from my point of view, prayer during public meeting cannot truly HURT anything, especially since atheists do not believe that it works in the first place. In my opinion, the fact that Christians do believe in God would call for more of a deprivation of our rights to our religion rather than taking away rights from non-theists. Does that make sense? And the judgement and discrimination that you fear from Christians is not that of true followers of Christ, which I understand many aren’t, but the Gospel that you see Jesus bring with His ministry is definitely not one of judgement, but unconditional love which many who claim Christ today do not practice. I know from seeing many of your other posts that in other aspects of life, Christianity goes against what you believe, but prayer in itself will do nothing to take away your rights. That in itself isn’t forcing beliefs on you. Does that make sense? Because if public faces are using prayer because they believe that it will aid them in their decisions to make the community better for everyone, how can you complain about that? They’re doing everything that they can to make your community a better place.

  • Thank you for your U.S. military service. You probably served before the “under God” was put in the pledge, so you must be really steaming now that the Mass. high court has just reaffirmed it. Anyway, I appreciate your resentment because it means I have offended at least one person sufficiently to warrant a reply, so thanks for that too. Gotta liven up these comments–the New York Times had over 2000 comments on their article, but I couldn’t get my parable down to 1500 characters.

  • Hunter – you are not understanding!
    I don’t mind your prayer! Pray All you want!










    This is the new America! – no better than Iran! Or Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia.


  • I do understand what you’re saying now. My apologies, I was misunderstanding your concern.