by James C. Nelson, Justice, Montana Supreme Court (Retired)
I am a non-believer. I became one late in my adult life because I was disgusted with the hypocrisy of religion in general and with the Catholic Church in particular. My decision was grounded in more hours of study and contemplation than I care to estimate. I do not believe in, much less pray to, any god.
And my point with that opening is that the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protect my fundamental right to be a non-believer; they insure, among other things, that my various federal, state, county and local governments cannot require me – directly or indirectly – to participate in any religious exercise. Read together these religion clauses form the wall of separation between church and state that the framers intended. They keep – or at least they are supposed to keep – religion out of government and government out of religion.
That is why I cannot not accept the U.S. Supreme Court’s May 5, decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway. In that case the Court held that the town opening its official board meetings with a Christian prayer offered by members of the clergy does not violate the First Amendment and does not discriminate against minority faiths or coerce participation with non-adherents.
The Court’s decision is flat wrong. It respects neither the history underpinning the adoption of the religion clauses, the wall of separation, nor the reality that “We the People” are a pluralistic and diverse society encompassing all degrees of sectarian believers, agnostics and athiests. Nonetheless, that decision is now the law of the land—created from whole cloth and judicially blessed by the right wing Christian majority of our Nation’s highest Court. And, that puts me in a box.
For many years I have stood during opening prayers in public meetings of federal, state and local government. I did so out of a sense of respect for the beliefs of others and for decorum – notwithstanding my personal dis-belief in the prayer and the god prayed-to. But, while respect can be freely given, it cannot be compelled. And, thus, The Town of Greece leaves me but one option.
I will stand no longer for prayer! I will not, as the Supreme Court suggests, leave the room during the invocation. Rather, I will sit during the prayer in the meeting room in which I am constitutionally entitled to assemble. I will not be bullied nor will I be shamed into standing. After all, it is not I who is violating the constitutional separation of church and state. I cannot and will not be compelled to participate in any fashion in government sponsored prayer.