Eau Claire’s Prayer Snare: When It Comes To Religion, The Best Policy For Government Is Hands Off

When a government body presumes to offer a prayer on behalf of the entire community, it inevitably steps into a tar pit by favoring one mode of religious expression over others.

Communities across the country continue to squabble over what they should do about prayers before government meetings.

The latest flashpoint is Eau Claire County, Wisc., where the Board of Supervisors has voted 23-4 to replace its invocation with a “moment of reflection.”

The county’s official pre-meeting invocations have often taken the form of Christian prayers but have sometimes been inspirational quotes, reported the Eau Claire Leader Telegram. One supervisor, Sue Miller, recalled offering non-religious invocations, only to be asked by another board member why her comments did not include references to God or Jesus Christ.

“Whose god should I represent?” Miller asked. She noted that her constituents come from many faith perspectives as well as non-religious points of view.

The supervisors decided to take up the matter after receiving a letter in February from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). The Madison, Wisc.-based group urged the board to stop meddling in theology and focus on county business.

The FFRF makes a good point. I don’t think anyone goes to a Board of Supervisors meeting for a religious experience. We have houses of worship for that. If the invocation is merely ceremonial or to set a more formal tone, why bother? People who take religion seriously don’t use prayer for those purposes.

If members of the board feel the need for spiritual guidance, they can pray on their own before the meeting or even silently during it. I’m not aware of any religious tradition that teaches that God only hears prayers if they are recited out loud by a government functionary. (In fact, there’s some evidence that God dislikes prayers like that. See the Book of Matthew 6:6.)

When a government body presumes to offer a prayer on behalf of the entire community, it inevitably steps into a tar pit by favoring one mode of religious expression over others. Even so-called “non-sectarian” prayers are problematic in a country where a growing number of people identify themselves as non-religious.

This issue comes up frequently here at Americans United. Our attorneys have addressed it through litigation and by sending letters to municipal officials, advising them of the law. Our attorneys have urged local government officials to get out of the prayer business. It’s not their job, and it just sows divisiveness.

I wish government officials would understand that the best prayer policy is to not have one. They should stick to running the government and leave choices about prayer to the citizenry.