In Public Prayer Case, Scalia Asks ‘What About Devil Worshippers?’ A Satanist Responds.

Is there 1 prayer to make Christians, Jews, Muslims, Atheists, Polytheists, Wiccans, and Devil Worshippers all happy?

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Brian Resnick
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Brian Resnick
Nov. 6, 2013, 10:21 a.m.

At the Su­preme Court on Wed­nes­day, the justices heard ar­gu­ments for a case styled Town of Greece v. Gal­lo­way, in which a very ba­sic ques­tion pro­voked long, long, and im­per­fect an­swers.

JUSTICE SCALIA: What about dev­il wor­ship­pers?

Should the town of Greece, loc­ated in the tun­dra out­side of Rochester, N.Y., be al­lowed to start a monthly meet­ing with a pray­er? The plaintiffs say the Chris­ti­an over­tones of the monthly in­voc­a­tion make them un­com­fort­able, and ar­gue that it con­sti­tutes a gov­ern­ment en­dorse­ment of Chris­tian­ity.

In 1983, the Court de­term­ined in Marsh v. Cham­bers that the state of Neb­raska could start le­gis­lat­ive pro­ceed­ings with a pray­er, but, as SCOTUS­b­log ex­plains it, the ex­act cutoff as to when pray­er be­comes state-en­dorsed re­li­gion has nev­er been drawn, aside from a vague re­stric­tion on not pros­elyt­iz­ing or de­noun­cing out­right an­oth­er re­li­gion.

As part of the or­al ar­gu­ment Wed­nes­day, the justices wondered wheth­er there could pos­sibly be one pray­er nondenom­in­a­tion­al enough to be cool with Chris­ti­ans, and, let’s say, wor­ship­pers of Zeus. They were pick­ing apart the ar­gu­ment of Douglas Lay­cock, a pro­fess­or of law and re­li­gion at the Uni­versity of Vir­gin­ia, who said that pray­ers could be al­lowed if they were not sec­tari­an. 

“Well, if that is your ar­gu­ment, then you are really say­ing you can nev­er have pray­er at a town meet­ing,” Justice Samuel Alito said. Lay­cock then tried to de­fend his po­s­i­tion.

The ex­change that fol­lows high­lights the cent­ral prob­lem of the is­sue: How do you both al­low pub­lic pray­er and be all in­clus­ive? The an­swer veers in­to the ab­surd, dis­sect­ing pray­ers in­to their least of­fens­ive and vaguest com­pon­ents, ap­prov­ing the ones that pass a sniff test, but still im­pli­citly in­voke God and there­fore will of­fend someone, some­where. Justice Ant­on­in Scalia, the staunch Cath­ol­ic, jumped in won­der­ing wheth­er such a pray­er could make dev­il wor­ship­pers happy.

For the re­cord, Lu­cien Greaves, the com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or of the Satan­ic Temple, says the an­swer is no.

“If the ques­tion is one of wheth­er or not there can be one pub­lic pray­er gen­er­al­ized enough to be all-in­clus­ive to every re­li­gion, the an­swer is ob­vi­ously no,” he wrote me via email.

“The dis­cus­sion re­gard­ing some type of all-in­clus­ive pub­lic pray­er na­ively as­sumes one type of re­li­gious con­struct (that of ser­vitude and su­per­nat­ur­al­ism) while seem­ingly dis­reg­ard­ing not only oth­er re­li­gious con­cep­tions, but the pres­ence of those who don’t wish to as­so­ci­ate them­selves with any type of re­li­gion what­so­ever.”

JUSTICE ALITO: All right. Give me an ex­ample. Give me an ex­ample of a pray­er that would be ac­cept­able to Chris­ti­ans, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus. Give me an ex­ample of a pray­er. Wic­cans, Baha’i.

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: And athe­ists.

JUSTICE SCALIA: And athe­ists. Throw in athe­ists, too.

(Laughter.)

MR. LAY­COCK: We — we take Marsh to — to im­ply that athe­ists can­not get full re­lief in this con­text, and the Mc­Creary dis­sent­ers said that ex­pli­citly. So points on which be­liev­ers are known to dis­agree is a — is a set that’s in the Amer­ic­an con­text, the Amer­ic­an civil re­li­gion, the Judeo-Chris­ti­an tra­di­tion — ­

JUSTICE ALITO: Give me an ex­ample then. I think the point about athe­ists is a good point. But ex­clude them for present pur­poses and give me an ex­ample of a pray­er that is ac­cept­able to all of the groups that I men­tioned.

MR. LAY­COCK: About a third of the pray­ers in this re­cord, Your Hon­or, are ac­cept­able.

JUSTICE ALITO: Give me an ex­ample.

MR. LAY­COCK: Can I have the joint ap­pendix? The pray­ers to the almighty, pray­ers to the cre­at­or.

JUSTICE ALITO: To “the almighty.”

MR. LAY­COCK: Yes.

JUSTICE ALITO: So if — if a par­tic­u­lar re­li­gion be­lieves in more than one god, that’s ac­cept­able to them?

MR. LAY­COCK: Well, some re­li­gions that be­lieve in more than one god be­lieve that all their many gods are mani­fest­a­tions of the one god. But the true poly­the­ists I think are also ex­cluded from the Mc­Creary dis­sent.

JUSTICE SCALIA: What about dev­il wor­ship­pers?

(Laughter.)

MR. LAY­COCK: Well, if dev­il wor­ship­pers be­lieve the dev­il is the almighty, they might be OK. But they’re prob­ably out —

(Laughter.)

CHIEF JUSTICE ROBERTS: Who is go­ing to make this de­term­in­a­tion?

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