When the obituary is written for Christianity in America, Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives will merit at least a footnote.
In this verdict, a federal court ruled that the Pennsylvania Legislature could invite guest chaplains to offer opening prayers while barring atheists from giving secular invocations. It's clear that the intent and effect is to favor Christianity: Although the statehouse has had a few token representatives of other religions, the overwhelming majority of legislative prayers--over 90 percent--have been given by Christian clergy.
This is a disastrous decision. It consigns Pennsylvania's atheist and agnostic citizens to second-class status, denying them equal opportunity before the law and shutting them out from the elected officials who are supposed to represent them. It's the definition of a religious test, something the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids. The court's ruling sidestepped these arguments and asserted that legislative prayer passes muster merely because of "historical tradition," an absurd argument that implies that constitutional violations become OK if they've been going on for long enough.
Still, I have a message to religious conservatives who are cheering: Be careful what you wish for. The more that state and church are entangled, the worse it will be for the church.
Of course, since I'm an atheist, I might be accused of offering this advice in bad faith. Apologists might say that Christianity is on the verge of revival and that I'm seeking to sabotage them at their moment of triumph.
To this I say: Have you seen Europe lately?
Europe has tied church to state for centuries, but instead of helping the church, this bond has drained it of vitality. Christianity as a faith is on life support all over the continent. In over a dozen countries, congregations are shrinking and graying; absolute majorities of the young profess no religious belief. Vacant churches are being converted to bookstores, gyms, pubs and skating rinks.
America is heading down the same road. Although we don't--yet --have an official established religion, the Republican Party has tied Christianity tightly to a narrowly partisan and conservative set of policy priorities. They've spent the past several decades insisting that being Christian meant politically opposing LGBTQ rights, reproductive choice and science, and supporting war and tax cuts for the rich.
More recently, "pro-family" evangelicals in the '90s...