Invocation Irritation: What’s to Be Done about Government Prayer?

The town council of Newton, New Jersey, recently agreed to end a sixty-year tradition of opening its meetings with the Lord’s Prayer after a resident pointed out the obvious violation of church-state separation.

When I read about incidents like this, I always have to check the calendar. It took until the year 2009 for these people to realize that the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t represent the entire community?

Disputes like this have been popping up all over the country lately. They don’t usually involve practices as blatant as the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. More often, a guest minister, mayor, or councilmember gets into the habit of ending a civic gathering with a prayer “in Jesus’s name” or using Christian terminology. Someone complains, and the matter may or may not go to court.

Generally speaking, courts have permitted the use of “non-sectarian” prayers before government bodies while looking a little more skeptically at prayers that consistently reflect a specific religious tradition.

Lower federal courts usually point to Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 Supreme Court ruling in which the high court upheld the right of Nebraska’s unicameral legislature to open its sessions with a prayer by a chaplain. The court majority upheld the prayers as a historic practice and noted that in Nebraska they were non-sectarian.

But some people chafe against the non-sectarian requirement. In Fredericksburg, Virginia, city council member Hashmel Turner sought the right to deliver pre-meeting prayers that mentioned Jesus. When the council refused, Turner sued. The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Turner, and he lost his final appeal in January when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The 4th Circuit Court has ruled on several occasions that local governments may not use sectarian prayer before meetings. But there may be trouble brewing. A separate federal appeals court–the 11th U.S. Circuit Court–recently said the opposite. In a dispute from Cobb County, Georgia, the 11th Circuit Court ruled in October 2008 that prayers referencing specific deities are permissible. The court held that it didn’t want to get into the business of deciding when prayers become too sectarian.

More alarmingly, the 2-1 decision was written by Judge William Pryor, the former attorney general of Alabama. Appointed to the bench by George W. Bush, Pryor was known for his activism on behalf of religious right causes during his tenure in Alabama.

When federal court circuits split like this, it increases the chance that the Supreme Court might get interested in order to clear up the conflict and issue a definitive ruling. What might the current high court say about government prayer? The court continues to be closely divided over church-state issues, and the decision would probably fall into the hands of swing voters like Justices Anthony Kennedy and Stephen Breyer. There’s certainly no guarantee that the pro-separation side would win.

What are humanists to make of all of this? The obvious solution seems to be the one that few ever contemplate: stop official prayers before government meetings. City council members would still retain the right to pray silently before meetings if they chose, but vocal, government-designated prayers would end.

Many local legislators resist this idea. For some reason, many government officials act as if a prayer doesn’t count unless it is recited out loud. (This despite Jesus’s admonition against public prayer in Matthew 6:5-6.) It’s either that or they are truly convinced that God won’t help them make the right decision over what to do about cable rates and potholes unless they publicly call on his assistance first.

Even more strangely, some people have taken to invoking secular rationales for such prayers. It’s tradition, they say. Or they argue that a moment of prayer allows everyone to focus their thoughts before the meeting begins. But that’s not the purpose of prayer. Prayer is an appeal to a deity, an attempt to communicate with some aspect of the divine. It is religious worship, and as such it should never be sponsored by any arm of government.

What about secular invocations? Some humanists have sought the right to deliver them, arguing that if a city council uses a system of rotating ministers to open meetings (as many do) the nontheistic community needs to get into the mix. Others argue this only compounds the problem. Suddenly the community is endorsing fifty religions and tacking on nonbelief as an afterthought.

Compounding the problem is the fact that the courts allow certain ceremonial uses of religion but not others. Prayers–even sectarian ones–during the swearing-in ceremonies of governors and presidents have proven to be difficult to attack in court. Continuing to file lawsuits against them is risky because it establishes bad legal precedent. Our opponents in the religious right legal camp take these losses and use them for their advantage, always pushing the envelope. (“The court said we could have prayer at the governor’s inauguration, so maybe we can have it at this other event as well.”)

Nevertheless, sectarian prayer recited every week or two weeks at city council meetings remains vulnerable. The best likely result, however, is a court order to use non-sectarian prayers instead, an imperfect solution to many humanists.

What to do? The answer is somewhat unsatisfying, but I think we need to continue to press for an end to prayers before government meetings. Call it a moment of silence if that makes it easier for people to swallow. And I recommend promoting this idea outside of the courts. Humanists can appear before local government bodies, express their concern about prayers and recommend a change.

Will this always get the result we want? Of course not. But at the very least it gets people thinking about the issue and opens the door for the possibility of change at some point. At one time, using Christian prayers just seemed like the “natural” thing to do for many local governments. After all, most people in town were Christians, so what was the big deal?

That attitude is slowly fading away. If communities can shift to non-sectarian prayer or bring non-Christians in to offer prayers at least some of the time, they may someday drop prayer all together.

Convincing government officials that they have no right to speak in a religious voice on everyone’s behalf is an optimistic and long-term goal–but one well worth working toward.

Rob Boston is senior policy analyst at Americans United for Separation of Church and State and is a board member of the American Humanist Association.