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Fighting over prayers in the name of Jesus

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Charles C. Haynes
February 27, 2010

Meetings of the Board of Commissioners in Forsyth County, N.C., have long opened with mostly Christian prayers—and a majority of the commissioners are determined to keep it that way. As far as they’re concerned, what the Christian majority wants, the Christian majority should get.


Last month, however, a federal judge called a halt to the practice of praying in the name of Jesus. Although the county argued that its recently revised policy was now constitutional because it permits religious leaders of all faiths to pray on a first-come, first-served basis, the judge ruled that most prayers were Christian in violation of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government advancing one religion over others.


Undeterred, the commissioners have vowed to fight on, voting 4-3 on Feb. 22 to appeal the court’s decision—backed by $300,000 raised by citizens outraged by the ruling.


Welcome to the latest round in the bitter, never-ending fight over legislative prayers.


The U.S. Supreme Court helped create this convoluted mess in Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 decision upholding the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of opening each session with a prayer by a state-funded chaplain.


Arguing from history, the Court pointed out that the same Congress that approved the First Amendment voted to appoint a chaplain. Invoking divine guidance for a public body, therefore, should be seen not as an “establishment” of religion, said the Court, but rather “simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”


Tolerable, that is, until the prayer opportunity is “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” In other words, the Supreme Court decided that government-sponsored prayers in legislatures are constitutional—as long as such prayers don’t take sides in religion.


The effect of Marsh, as Justice William Brennan predicted in his dissenting opinion, has been to involve government bodies in endless theological hair-splitting and religious debate. When are prayers too “sectarian” or “proselytizing” to pass constitutional muster? Is the prayer problem cured by having a laundry list of faith leaders giving prayers on a rotating basis?


“[I]t is simply beyond the competence of government,” wrote Brennan, “and inconsistent with our conceptions of liberty, for the State to take upon itself the role of ecclesiastical arbiter.”


Fights usually break out when government officials in places such as Forsyth County refuse to give up praying in the name of Jesus in favor of praying to whom-it-may-concern.


After years of fruitless court battles, most pro-prayer officials have come to recognize that the only way to keep invocations is to make sure that prayers are pabulum. But they still balk when asked to turn over the podium to religious groups that may be unpopular with voters.


Consider the uproar in Chesterfield County, Va., in 2003 when county commissioners refused to add a Wiccan priestess to the list of “approved” clergy invited to give invocations. Although a federal judge ruled the policy unconstitutional, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the county could pick and choose who gets on the list—as long as the prayers themselves were nonsectarian.


A few years ago, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., learned the perils of acknowledging America’s religious pluralism when he invited a Hindu leader to offer the morning prayer before the U.S. Senate. “This is an abomination,” shouted Christian protesters from the Senate gallery, before being arrested and taken away.


Generic prayers may have passed muster in the first Congress, but 200 years later one prayer no longer fits all in the most religiously diverse country on Earth. Moreover, reducing prayers to the lowest common denominator should offend people of any faith—not to mention the growing numbers of Americans who have no religious affiliation.


Instead of futile (and expensive) efforts to re-impose “in the name of Jesus,” Christians in Forsyth County who care about authentic prayer should urge the commissioners to start meetings with a moment of silence.


In silence people can pray (or not) as their conscience dictates. After all, the First Amendment right to choose in matters of faith is also a Christian principle—worthy of upholding in the name of Jesus.


Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: chaynes@freedomforum.org.

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