first amendment

July 18, 2014

Genre Interventions: Taming Lawmakers through Prayer, Poetry, and Song

 [Editor’s Note: This post is in response to “Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway” by Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.] 

Speaking in the tongue of Christianity in an age of pluralism, the praying citizens of Greece, New York knew enough to keep it vague when bringing their supplications to town council. Winnifred Sullivan’s reflections on the legal wrangling over public prayer in the town council of Greece included examples of how Christians prayed for their town leaders to be “filled with the spirit of wisdom” and asked that their neighbours would come to see the virtues of “interrelationship.” Though recognizably Christian, these prayers addressed to a “Heavenly Father” were nevertheless “tamed by the law,” as Sullivan puts it, in their avoidance of Jesus-language and their studied evasion of deity specificity (except in terms of their gendered language of kinship).

Heading northward across Lake Ontario to Toronto, home of an infamous mayor, the idea of turning to banal, or better yet prophetic, prayers to bring some order to the chambers of City Hall seems like an eminently sensible plan. At a time when many politicians converse with each other in a manner disrespectful, mocking, and even lewd—when they care more about how their words will translate to sound bites and celebrity than how their exchanges will forward the cause of deliberative democracy—perhaps the call to prayer in public could also be understood as a call for genre intervention and not only divine intervention.


May 8, 2014

Court Rules in Favor of Public Prayer in Town of Greece v Galloway

Taconic-prayingsymbol300x357.jpg (JPEG Image, 300 × 357 pixelIn November, Winifred Fallers Sullivan contributed an essay on a case that was being reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, The Town of Greece v. Galloway. At town meetings held in Greece, NY, an opening prayer was—and continues to be—common practice. While town officials claim that members of any faith would be welcome to give these opening prayers, the overwhelming majority of these prayers have been led by Christians, and many have drawn on explicitly sectarian references. Two town residents, one atheist and one Jewish, sued on the basis that the prayers “ran afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition of government establishment of religion.”

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court handed down their ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, splitting 5-4 in favor of the town continuing to open its board meetings with prayer. It is interesting to note that the five justices in the majority decision are Catholic, while three of the four in the minority are Jewish. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority; Justice Elena Kagan wrote for the dissent. 

The New York Times provides an overview of the case and the majority and dissenting opinions, and writers at both Slate and The Economist have responded to the ruling.

November 5, 2013

Law’s Prayer: Town of Greece v Galloway

Taconic-prayingsymbol300x357.jpg (JPEG Image, 300 × 357 pixelIn his ethnography of the French Conseil d’Etat, Bruno Latour describes the effect that law has on life as being analogous to faxing pizza. The Making of Law brilliantly and hilariously shows how law flattens life, remaking it for law’s own purposes. One sees all of the color and taste drained out of the drama of local government and politics as it makes its way up through the relentless contouring of each fact to suit the public purposes of the French administrative courts. Similar effects can be seen in any legal system. But, as Talal Asad and others have shown, the shaping of life to suit the law has backstream effects as well, beginning long before life enters the courts. One feature of the modern world is the thorough juridification of life in its very subjectivity. Law does not need the courts. Law reaches in and tells us what it is that we experience and even how we are religious—how we must choose to be religious. It is not just that religion, when it appears in court, must answer to law’s demands, but that religion, in its daily life, is shaped by the modern church/state accommodation and what Benjamin Berger calls law’s aesthetics. That accommodation and those aesthetics take a particular form in the U.S. context.