In late April, the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the centuries-old tradition of offering prayers to open government meetings.
The 5-4 ruling was based in large part on the history of legislative prayer dating back to the Framers of the Constitution.
Defending a practice used by the town of Greece, N.Y., the majority ruled that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause as long as no religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents aren’t coerced.
“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance, inaugural prayer, or the recitation of ‘God save the United States and this honorable court’ at the opening of this court’s sessions,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.
Justice Elena Kagan wrote the principal dissent for the court’s liberal bloc, arguing that the intimate setting of local government meetings, the participation of average citizens and the dominance of Christian prayer-givers put the policy out-of-bounds.
“When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,” Kagan said. “And that means that even in a partly legislative body, they should not confront government-sponsored worship that divides them along religious lines.”
“The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech,” Justice Kennedy said. “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer-giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates.”
Not so, Kagan argued for the losing side. She said the town’s prayers differed from those delivered to federal and state legislators about to undertake the people’s business. Justice Samuel Alito drove home that point in a separate concurrence Monday in which he called the liberals’ dissent “quite niggling.”
“Not only is there no historical support for the proposition that only generic prayer is allowed,” Alito said, “but as our country has become more diverse, composing a prayer that is acceptable to all members of the community who hold religious beliefs has become harder and harder.”
If one sees oneself as a spiritual leader, with certain beliefs and practices, one could find the term “generic prayer,” insulting. For I do not worship a generic God. Nor do I feel our religious beliefs should be compromised to make everyone happy or comfortable. Further, I do not want those who have a different faith tradition from I to water down their religious language to make me comfortable.
If a prayer challenges me, makes me angry, or sad or makes me (heaven forbid) think, then I know God is working on me. If I think, “I don’t think that about God at all,” or “huh, I never thought about it that way before,” than I am richer for it, and my understanding of the Divine is clearer and more meaningful. I would rather have a brighter tapestry of our religious and cultural diversity than a generic blanket prayer that has little value or meaning.
Of course the question is, should such expressions be made in the walls of government? I understand and appreciate the importance of not letting dogma or doctrine seep into Democracy. Yet our religious diversity is part of what defines our society. Our religious values help us form our public policy. What we believe about creation, sin, justice and compassion influences our public policy. I would rather understand the richness of our religious diversity so that I can understand why decisions are made, then think that decisions are made with little consideration to personal values. Our beliefs shape our decisions. I would rather know my neighbor and what he believes, than pretend that he has a generic belief or no belief at all.
So what is the purpose of prayer prior to a council meeting or at the opening of a legislative meeting? Is it simply formality? Tradition? Is it there because it’s always been there? Or does it have a higher purpose? Is it white sugar or should it have substance?
I think it’s important to always remember there is a Power greater than us who is ultimately in charge of the world. Those of us who are leaders and are seemingly in charge of many things, need to make sure we remember we are not really in charge of anything. Prayer puts our feet on humble ground. We humans like power and to protect our egos. If prayer helps us to begin our decision-making with the humble reminder that we are all children of a Creator, more powerful than us, then I think there is value in that. If a prayer helps us to define our values and formulate our decisions, then I am for it. If prayer helps us to understand our neighbors and our community and the richness of our diverse beliefs then I am in favor.
If, on the other hand, the purpose of praying has no real value and it’s phony and bland and flippant, let’s give God the night off.
I was recently asked to pray at our city council meeting. Here is the invocation and my attempt to have integrity in my tradition while being respectful of all.
God of all creation,
We thank you for this day and the many blessings we have received.
We thank for the people with whom we have been in contact: our family, friends and strangers.
We thank you for the ability to use our minds, to discern your will and work to create a strong and healthy community.
We thank you for our community and all who serve it.
For those who teach and those who protect.
For those who clean and those who repair.
For those who work in parks and those who work on roads.
For those who plan and those who make the plans happen.
For those who heal and those who counsel.
For those who govern and those who elect.
For all who live into the best example of what it means to be a citizen.
We thank you for our community.
We pray for all in our community who are hungry, unemployed or uninsured.
We pray for all in our community who are mentally or physically ill.
We pray for all in our community who live in violence.
For these and all the burdens of our larger community, Lord hear our prayers.,..
As this meeting begins this evening I pray for each person here.
Give each person clarity of mind, creativity, compassion, due diligence, integrity and a sense of humor.
Give them listening ears and thoughtful words.
Give them presence of mind and an open heart.
And all God’s People Said: