BC Expert: Supreme Court & Ceremonial Deism
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Professor Papandrea is an expert on First Amendment issues, freedom of expression and the press; media law, a reporter's privilege, defamation law, and privacy issues. Prior to joining Boston College, Professor Papandrea clerked for the Hon. David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court, and spent several years as a litigator at Williams & Connolly in Washington, D.C., where she specialized in First Amendment and media defense litigation. Professor Papandrea is chair of the AALS National Security Law Section and past chair of the AALS Mass Communication Law Section.
The tradition of beginning government meetings with prayers appears safe after today’s ruling by the Supreme Court allowing an upstate New York community to offer primarily Christian prayers.
“It’s a significant opinion - it makes clear that ceremonial deism or public government recognition of the role of religion in our society is permissible,” says Boston College Law Professor Mary-Rose Papandrea, an expert on the First Amendment. “The Court quite notably makes clear that these prayers and invocations do not have to be non-sectarian, they do not have to be sort of generic references to the Lord. They can actually include references to specific Christian figures like Jesus or the Trinity based on the idea that we don’t want the government involved in sanitizing messages that are delivered.”
The town of Greece, NY was taken to court by two women who argued the town’s references to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit aligned the town with one religion and violated the First Amendment’s ban on government endorsement of religion. But the High Court said prayer is part of the nation's fabric, not a violation of the First Amendment.
“Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion relies very heavily on history where he says the framers understood that the Establishment Clause would not restrict this kind of practice,” says Papandrea, who clerked for the Hon. David H. Souter of the U.S. Supreme Court. “He goes on to write that people are not coerced or forced to embrace any sort of religious viewpoint, that they’re free to leave the room if they want, that the town may have been careless in failing to recognize a lot of religious traditions but there was no animus against non-believers or against rabbis or other faiths that were not represented.
“This case could have a broader impact on cases challenging the phrase ‘under God’ in the Pledge of Allegiance or challenges from time to time wherever God or referenced religion appears - called ceremonial deism - where no one is being forced to say anything but there are these objections that the government is inappropriately referencing religion,” says Papandrea.
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