Church, State, and Jewish Engagement

The Supreme Court has ruled that opening prayers at government meetings, even if predominately Christian, do not violate the Constitution. How do Jewish and Jewish interfaith families prepare to confront the mixing of church and state?

I did not intend to write a blog on the recent Supreme Court decision on ceremonial prayer. I actually planned to write about the amazing Jewish teens and young adults who babysit our son Sammy and are a powerful influence on him. But then I opened the Sunday paper and read about Town of Greece v. Galloway.

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5-4 decision, that opening prayers at town council meetings in a suburb of Rochester, New York do not violate the Constitution even if the prayers were predominately Christian. As I read, I thought that starting governmental sessions with a prayer that often stressed Christianity sounded like something that happened in Bible Belt Texas, not Upstate New York.

In Dallas, which is sometimes referred to as the buckle of the Bible Belt, religion in public life is common, so common, in fact, that it is easy to find examples of the religious mixing with the secular on a daily basis. Business meetings often begin with a prayer and offices conduct Bible study at lunch. City sports leagues run clinics that teach baseball skills and the Christian Bible, dance schools help children learn to praise Jesus through ballet, cheerleaders at public high schools print Bible verses on spirit banners used for athletic events, and billboards advertise Christ-centered talent preparation for models and actors. If you live in a less overtly religious region of the country, you may think that these examples of life in the Bible Belt sound unbelievable, and before moving here, I would have too, but I assure you, they are real.  

The hyper-religious culture in the part of the country I live in sparked my interest in the Town of Greece case. As I continued reading, I came across excerpts of Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion. He noted that there was no reason to view ceremonial invocations as an endorsement by the state of any particular religion unless actions that are more blatant were present. He suggested that offended adults could either not participate in the prayer portion of a meeting or remain quiet while the religious message was delivered. Kennedy wrote, “Our tradition assumes that adult citizens, firm in their own beliefs, can tolerate and perhaps appreciate a ceremonial prayer delivered by a person of a different faith.”

After reading this quote, I wondered how many adults were actually firm enough in their own beliefs and educated enough about other faiths to appreciate different religious voices, and not feel excluded or disrespected. I know from my own Jewish journey that I have only really strengthened and defined my beliefs since meeting my husband, becoming a parent, and engaging in adult education. I am sure that 15 years ago if I was in a government or business meeting, or in a public school setting that began with a prayer of any kind that I would have felt uncomfortable and like I was an outsider. 

The blurring of the lines between church and state challenges many of us, including those of us with strong religious identities, and who believe in a wall of separation between church and state. So, how do we prepare ourselves to confront these situations and more importantly, how do we prepare our children who will not only face these scenarios as adults, but may have to deal with them at school? How do we raise children to be the kind of adults Kennedy assumes exist in America – adults that are confident in their beliefs and religious identities, yet value diverse religious perspectives? How do we ensure that our children and we are strong enough to speak-up when religion in pubic life becomes exclusionary or proselytism? How do we do this in the context of intermarriage?

Raising children in an interfaith home presents both challenges and opportunities with respect to these questions. Maybe children who are raised in interfaith homes and intermarried adults can more easily appreciate a variety of religious ideas. Maybe children of intermarriage have beliefs that are less firm or weaker faith identities, or maybe they have stronger ones because our families are forced to think and act more consciously about religion. Maybe they are no different from children from inmarried homes – they are as connected or disconnected as their parents.

As I consider these questions, I think about the current emphasis in progressive Judaism on engagement. We are told that Jewish engagement now is imperative so we can guarantee a Jewish future. But in light of the increasing incursions of the religious into secular life as demonstrated by the Town of Greece decision, engaging with Judaism through ritual, education, camps, community groups, and social networks is not just of Jewish importance, but it is of practical importance. Engagement builds our knowledge base and identity muscle. If both are weak, how can we expect to confront religion in public life in a rational and productive way? If we know who we are, what we care about, and what are our core beliefs then it is easier to handle these public encounters with faith with pride, dignity, and resolve.

All of the ways we choose to engage with religion will help prepare our families and children for life in the not always secular world. Town of Greece v. Galloway gives all of the subjects we discuss in this space and actions such as lighting Shabbat candles, participating in Jewish education, attending Jewish summer camp, being active in a synagogue or Jewish community, and discussing with our children our beliefs and those of our not Jewish partners and extended families significance beyond Jewish continuity.