Prayers And Government: Policies Should Respect The Rights Of All

Americans United has recently won two important rulings dealing with government-sponsored prayer.

A federal district court struck down the practice of opening meetings of the Sussex County Council in Delaware with the Lord’s Prayer. Days later, an appeals court declared the use of mostly Christian invocations by the Greece, N.Y., Town Board unconstitutional.

These rulings, along with a similar decision from Forsyth County, N.C., indicate that the courts are finding it increasingly difficult to reconcile government-sponsored prayer with the constitutional separation of church and state.

This is appropriate. The first duty of government is to treat all of its citizens equally. When government consistently uses the prayers of one tradition, it sends the message that non-adherents are, at best, grudgingly tolerated or, at worst, second-class citizens. The state should never send this message.

While courts have struck down Christian prayers, they’ve tended to allow so-called “non-sectarian” invocations. Some see this as a reasonable compromise, but it’s not without its own set of problems.

For starters, what exactly is a “non-sectarian” prayer? A supplication addressed to God may be acceptable to many believers, but those who define God in non-traditional ways or who worship more than one god may find it problematic.

Many Americans, of course, choose not to worship any god or gods. Non-believers are a growing segment of the population, and many of them find “non-sectarian” prayer unacceptable.

A better answer is to remove official prayers from government proceedings entirely. Those who feel the need for spiritual solace before a meeting of the city council or county commission can still get it – on their own as guided by individual conscience through personal prayer. In the Book of Matthew, after all, Jesus assures his followers that their private prayers uttered in secret are most pleasing to God.

It should be obvious by now that in a nation of 311 million people who hold to hundreds of different faiths and philosophies that no one invocation can represent them all. It should also be obvious that a policy of “majority rules” is not acceptable.

Proponents of what is sometimes called “civil religion” argue that the failure to include prayers before government meetings is a form of hostility toward religion. Far from it. Nixing government-sponsored invocations leaves the decision of whether to pray or not in the hands of the individual as guided by his or her conscience.

Nothing could be more in line with America’s great tradition of real religious liberty.