A Tale Of Two Cities: N.J. And Calif. Towns Take Different Approaches On Prayer

Some politicians seem to believe a prayer really doesn’t count unless it is recited out loud and backed by the full power and authority of the government.

I was up bright and early Saturday morning to appear on Fox News Channel. Our topic was a perennial Fox favorite: prayers before government meetings.

It seems the borough council of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., has been opening its meetings with the Our Father, the Roman Catholic version of the Lord’s Prayer, since the 1990s. A lawsuit was filed, and the council agreed to stop.

Sort of.  Some members are now considering a plan that would permit council members to recite “non-sectarian” prayers on a rotating basis.

But it appears that some council members are confused about what constitutes a non-sectarian prayer. A member of the council appeared on the Fox program with me and expressed his desire to continue reciting the Our Father. I had to point out to him that this is not a non-sectarian prayer.

Meanwhile, the city council of Santee, Calif., has taken a different approach. Just before Halloween, the council asked a local Wiccan leader to recite a prayer before its meeting.

Valera Childers was happy to be asked.

“I was so happy when they got in touch,” Childers told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “They said they had a schedule of people and that they are trying to diversify. I am still so honored that they called. Especially since the mayor is a Christian. It takes a big person to step out of his box that way.”

While I appreciate the Santee council’s nod to diversity – it’s certainly better than relying on the same Christian prayer over and over again – that approach is not entirely satisfactory as well.

Here’s the thing: Government isn’t supposed to endorse religion. To me, this means it shouldn’t endorse one religion, five, 15 or 30. Government should be neutral on matters of theology and leave religious belief (or non-belief) to each of us.

Having someone stand up during a government meeting and recite a prayer on behalf of the entire community, whether that prayer is Christian, Jewish, Buddhist or Wiccan, is not neutrality. It is government wading into theology, and it is still potentially divisive.

The solution here is not to rotate prayers or charge some city employee with tracking down a representative from every religion so all will have their say. Rather, let municipal officials stick to matters of governance and stay out of religion entirely.

If individual council members feel the need for spiritual guidance, I’m sure there is ample opportunity before a meeting begins to pray, meditate or consult with a religious leader. Each individual can make his or her own decision on that.

The problem is, some politicians seem to believe a prayer really doesn’t count unless it is recited out loud and backed by the full power and authority of the government.

It’s especially odd to hear this view coming from Christians. After all, the founder of that faith had a few things to say about public prayer in the Book of Matthew – and he didn’t seem to be a fan.