Court rules on trivial and profound

Written By STEVE HUNTLEY | Steve Huntley Posted: 05/07/2014, 08:22pm

It sometimes seems like all society’s issues eventually land in the U.S. Supreme Court. Take a couple of recent cases, one a decision on prayer at town council meetings that took up an issue dating to the country’s founding, the other a hearing on the challenge smartphones and other 21st technology pose to our right of privacy.

The town hall case illustrated how petty, peevish and inconsequential are some of the complaints about religion in the public square. The town of Greece in Upstate New York is a mostly Christian community and its town board begins sessions with a prayer, almost always delivered by Christian clergy, though other faiths have on occasion delivered prayers.

Predictably a couple of residents complained that the practice violated the First Amendment prohibition against government establishing a religion. These two individuals felt, according to the high court’s opinion, “excluded and disrespected.”

Nowhere was it alleged that actual harm was done. The town board didn’t declare Greece officially Christian. It didn’t pass laws on religion, it approved no resolutions discriminating on the basis of sect or doctrine or targeting followers of other faiths, it issued no edicts or orders offensive to the First Amendment. The prayers, while sectarian in invoking Jesus Christ, did not disparage other beliefs or proselytize. They were strictly ceremonial.

The only offense, to two people, was that the prayer was Christian.

This is an illuminating example of today’s grievance culture. Too many people, mostly on the left but some of the right, wear their feelings and sensibilities on their sleeves and are ever ready, even eager, to be offended.

In writing the majority opinion affirming the right of the board to open with a Christian prayer, Justice Anthony Kennedy got to the heart of the matter: “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable . . . Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.”

Kennedy observed that the practice of legislative prayer dated to the very first Congress. Unfortunately, this was a 5-4 decision, meaning the high court is just one vote away from affirming a petty grievance culture and a secular left dedicated to wiping religion out of public life.

While that case involved an issue as old as the Republic, the justices recently took up one possible only in today’s Internet Age. They heard arguments on behalf of two characters who are unsympathetic, one an apparent gang-banger and the other a drug dealer, but their cases raise an issue important to modern lifestyles: Can police search the contents of your cellphone without a warrant?

When you exit your home, you leave your right to privacy there and if arrested, police can search your billfold, pocketbook or briefcase. Prosecutors say the rules should be no different for your cellphone. In fact, smartphones may contain information you deliberately make public, say, via a Facebook app.

Yet, there’s a persuasive argument that technology enables us to carry in our pockets information that previously we would have restricted to our homes. The questioning of the justices seemed to indicate they are open to the idea that technology advances our zone of privacy and might limit searches to serious crimes. Justices Antonin Scalia and Elena Kagan, at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, agreed that it would be absurd for police to be able to search the iPhone of someone arrested for not wearing a seat belt.

Once again, the court must separate the trivial from the significant.

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