Prayer doesn’t have to be private

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Forty years later, I can still hear Tom Williams’ deep cadences as he opened the Irvine City Council meetings with prayer.

Everywhere I’ve worked as a reporter, with the notable exception of Nelson County, I’ve heard ministers and local officials open public meetings with entreaties to the Almighty, usually ending with, “in Jesus’ name, amen.”

I can’t recall ever hearing a complaint about the practice in local government, but I know Democratic Sen. Kathy Stein of Lexington, who is Jewish, has objected to opening legislative sessions with invocations.

When I covered the legislature for the AP in 2012, Catholic Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville once gave an invocation. And Baptist preacher Hershael York prayed in Hebrew. Although I never heard a rabbi pray in the Capitol, the most beautiful meditation I heard at Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon’s prayer breakfast that year was given by a rabbi. I led with it.

It is common practice, not only in Kentucky, but also around the country, for government bodies to open their sessions with invocations. Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled 5-4 that prayers before public meetings do not violate First Amendment requirements regarding separation of church and state.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, stated: “Willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent” with brief acknowledgement of “belief in a higher power.” In Greece, N.Y., the prayers of the town board serve a ceremonial purpose and thus “are not an unconstitutional establishment of religion,” he concluded.

The opinion also makes it clear that prayers do not need to be nonsectarian to be constitutional.

I think the justices got it right, and I’m pleased they ruled the way they did.

Prayers before public meetings differ from prayers in public schools, where attendance is mandatory and children are told what to do by their elders. Still, governments should practice diversity in choosing the prayer leaders, and the prayers should be broad enough that they don’t denigrate anyone else’s religion.

Jews, Christians and Muslims all worship the same God, and asking for his guidance shouldn’t offend anyone.

As a society, we’ve gone so far in trying to avoid violating the establishment-of-religion clause that we ignore the more basic constitutional and God-given rights of free speech and freedom of faith.

Many mayors and county judges choose to open meetings with prayer because they acknowledge the biblical truth expressed by St. Paul in his letter to the church of Rome: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.”

One can choose not to believe that everything is under God’s authority (or even that there is a God), but that doesn’t make it less true. Secularists say, “What’s true for you may not be true for me,” but they’re wrong. Truth is truth. It is absolute and eternal.

We should respect the rights of others to have differing beliefs, but we shouldn’t require Christians to keep their beliefs to themselves. That’s something Christ explicitly told his followers they should never do.

Christian faith isn’t personal and private. It’s communal. One cannot be a Christian on one’s own, and true believers don’t separate their spiritual values from their daily lives.

That doesn’t mean a disciple should be a “Bible thumper.” The fruits of the Spirit include kindness, gentleness, patience and self-control. If any Christian beats you about the head with a Bible, figuratively or literally, he isn’t a mature Christian.

But wearing a cross, using the G-word in casual conversation (in a way that isn’t blasphemous), offering to pray for a friend or coworker who’s going through some difficulty, or bowing one’s head during an invocation isn’t forcing one’s faith on anyone else. It’s a voluntary exercise of the most fundamental freedom on which our republic was founded.


One Response to “Prayer doesn’t have to be private”

  • Doug Indeap:

    It is important to distinguish between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. (Students also are free to exercise and express their religious views–in a time, manner, and place that does not interfere with school programs and activities.) If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    The Supreme Court gave so-called legislative prayer a pass not because it is consistent with the general principle (as it plainly is not), but rather because it is a special case, a tradition that the first Congress continued shortly after the Constitution was ratified and the First Amendment was drafted (seemingly without a second thought) and thus the Court presumed the framers intended to be allowed.

    That validity of that presumption may be doubted. James Madison addressed just this sort of thing in his Detached Memoranda. As it happens, he not only stated plainly his understanding that the Constitution prohibits the government from promoting religion by such acts as appointing chaplains for the houses of Congress and the army and navy or by issuing proclamations recommending thanksgiving, he also addressed the question of what to make of the government’s actions doing just that. Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions inconsistent with the Constitution be undone, but rather with an explanation to circumscribe their ill effect: “Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [i.e., the law does not concern itself with trifles]: or to class it cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura [i.e., faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature].” Basically, he recognized that because too many people might be upset by reversing these actions, it would be politically difficult and perhaps infeasible to do so in order to adhere to the constitutional principle, and thus he proposed giving these particular missteps a pass, while at the same time assuring they are not regarded as legitimate precedent of what the Constitution means, so they do not influence future actions.

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