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Once again, prayer has found its way to the U. S. Supreme Court.
On Wednesday of this week the Supreme Court heard arguments in the case Town of Greece, New York v. Susan Galloway, Et. Al. The case began when two citizens of Greece, N.Y., objected to the practice of clergy – primarily Christian clergy – offering prayers at the beginning of monthly city council meetings. They filed suit against the city, seeking to stop the practice of prayers before the meetings, and the case is now in the hands of the Supreme Court.
This is not the first time the Supreme Court has wandered into the choppy waters of prayer, and it is unlikely to be the last. Though the role of prayer in our nation’s public affairs has long been an established practice, it now encounters increasing challenges, which most likely will result in a refining of what is and isn’t allowed when prayer intersects with governmental settings.
In the interest of full disclosure, I offered a prayer at the August meeting of the Shelbyville City Council, a practice that could end, depending on how the Supreme Court rules in this case. In my role as a minister, I am often asked to pray at public events, some of which are sponsored by local governments.
I am one who is a fairly strict adherent of the separation of church and state, so I did not take the invitation lightly or make my decision before considering it very carefully.
The Supreme Court long has allowed the offering of prayer at some government-sponsored events. Invocations, in particular, have been such an accepted part of civic affairs throughout our nation’s history that the court has recognized them as being legally permissible.
They are recognized as part of a civil religion in our society that is not tied to any sectarian point of view. This is, actually, one of the reasons why I seriously considered declining the invitation to pray for the council meeting.
For a prayer to meet the legal standard at a civic affair it must be nonsectarian and, basically, part of the ceremony of civic affairs. I don’t like the idea of prayer that is considered mere ceremony. Prayer is, in my opinion, far too important to be considered as little more than a ceremonial part of a public gathering.
Ceremonial public prayer also requires that because not everyone present may accept my faith point of view – or any faith point of view – a very generic form of prayer should be offered. This is not something that makes me comfortable, but I recognize it is to be done not only out of respect for the views of others but to meet the constitutional requirement of not establishing one religious point of view over all others.
In a community such as Shelbyville, where the religious landscape is overwhelmingly Christian, having prayers that represent that point of view does cross the line to favoring one religion over all others. So my decision to pray was made primarily on the recognition that the Supreme Court has made room for some measure of accommodation to religion in governmental affairs, even if it is a type of accommodation that makes me personally uncomfortable.
When I pray, I prefer to pray in a way that represents who I am, not only as a person of faith, but of a particular faith. Praying at a city council meeting, by its nature, asks that I pray in a way that does not totally represent who I am, and that is not the kind of prayer I feel comfortable in offering. So, although it may be a permissible type of prayer, it is not a very desirable type.
I also fear this case carries the potential for prayer to be used as a tool in what is a contentious political and legal battle. Some people, fearing that prayer – or their desired type of prayer – may be banned, will push harder for their religious point of view to be expressed in public settings.
But using prayer as a political or legal tool is very troubling and certainly violates its purpose. If prayer is used to prove our religiosity as a people, that certainly violates what Jesus said about prayer in the Sermon On the Mount: “…and when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6).
When prayer is used in public events to demonstrate that we are a religious people, that is using prayer merely to be seen in a particular way, which is exactly the type of prayer that is condemned by Jesus. If someone wants me to pray in public to make a point, I want no part of such a display.
The decision of the Supreme Court, in this case, is probably some months away. I hope and, yes, pray that the court makes careful consideration of their ruling. It is time for the court to provide greater clarification on the role of prayer at public events.
Whatever its ruling, I’m fairly certain the court will make people on both sides of this debate unhappy. I believe the court will leave room for some public role of prayer, upsetting those who want to ban it altogether, but create more stringent guidelines for how prayers are offered, upsetting those who want to use prayer for their own sectarian purposes.
If the court bans the prayers altogether, I would be happy to meet with the city council for a time of private prayer before a meeting. It would be one citizen meeting with other citizens, freely choosing to gather for some moments of prayer, neither compelled nor restrained by law, which is exactly how it should be.
Dave Charlton is pastor of First Christian Church. His column will appear every other week. You can reach him at email@example.com.