Freethought Today · Vol. 26 No. 8 October 2009

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

Pray Away — But Not As Part of Council Meeting

This op-ed originally was published on Aug. 11, 2009, in the Sacramento Bee and is reprinted with permission of the author.

The dispute over prayer at Lodi City Council meetings is on hold for now as members, citizens and the circus ponder the utterance of that dirty word, “Jesus.”

In typical government fashion, the council members punted. Rather than address the issue in their last meeting, they’ve tempted fate by scheduling a Sept. 30 gathering outside council chambers and inside a 900-seat theater, apropos for the theatrics that will no doubt ensue.

I’ve never understood the reason to pray publicly before public meetings. The duty of a government body is to do the people’s political and community business, not to pray.

That doesn’t mean council members can’t pray; just do it before you come into the council chamber. Do it in private, do it in a separate room, do it in unison with others if you like. But once you enter the council chamber, you’re not there to pray; you’re there to govern by the consent of the governed, the people who elected you. And those constituents represent many different religious points of view or none at all. Any prayer in the name of anyone excludes members of the community, some of whom actually bothered to go to the polls on your behalf.

One protester said, “It’s becoming harder and harder to be a Christian,” and, “We’re tired of our freedom being taken away.” That’s puzzling. How can you take away someone’s freedom to be a Christian? That’s a matter of conscience and personal belief. This issue isn’t about separating faith from the person; it’s about separating prayer from the job.

But there’s a different issue here. The Christians protesting in Lodi are not there because they think their right to pray is being compromised. They’re there because they object to sharing the supremacy of their religious tradition with anyone else. They don’t consider it prayer unless Jesus is invoked. After all, Christians are in the majority.

That may be true statistically, but the First Amendment doesn’t use statistics to declare, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If you frequently pray at a public meeting in the tradition of one particular faith, you are establishing religion.
The real question here, one that I’ve never had successfully answered: Why must we mix religion with politics at all? You follow your beliefs and I’ll follow mine—in private. If you wish to be a missionary for your beliefs, that’s fine, and I expect you’d have no problem if I sought to be a missionary for my religious beliefs. But neither of us should be using the government to advance the interests of our religion. That’s precisely what the First Amend­ment prohibits.

If the framers, who were men of great education, had wanted to establish a particular religion, they certainly would’ve said it in no uncertain terms.

Consider: Of the 13 original col­onies, 12 were founded for refuge from religious persecution of one kind or another. (Only Georgia, being a debtors’ colony, was not.) And Rhode Island was founded by a guy fleeing the Pilgrims because after they’d fled the persecution of Britain, they decided to do their own persecuting once they got here and were intolerant of anybody who didn’t agree with them. That’s why Roger Williams established Providence.

So you can’t look at the original 13 colonies, 12 of which were founded as refuges from state religions and religious persecution, and contend that the framers intended for anything but a government expressly providing for religious liberty and a separation be­tween civil and ecclesiastical authority.
Never mind the founding fathers’ religious convictions (or lack thereof). That’s not what they’re talking about in Lodi. Yes, some of the framers were pious, some were not. Some prayed; others had no use for it. But together, they agreed to keep religion and state separate, which is why our founding documents are devoid of religious instruction. Why do we find that so difficult to understand?

Render unto Caesar, as the good book says. Or shall we recall the parable of the two men who went to pray? In a front pew, one prays loudly, boastfully. The other is humble, head bowed, voice silent; he’s not even inside the temple.

“For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

How is this lesson missed? It’s in the very handbook of the people wanting to take over the Lodi City Council meeting to turn it into a church service—of their tradition, of course. Not yours.

Shall we be the self-important Pharisee or the self-effacing publican?

Governing is about conciliation and compromise. If the council is smart, it will invoke Solomon’s wisdom instead of Jesus Christ and either eliminate public prayer at public meetings, or pray without reference to a particular faith. Anything less would be less than representative, and if the council mem­­bers are not representing everyone, they’re not doing their job.

Maybe they’ll start doing it. Maybe we should pray that they do.

Bruce, a Foundation member, is a long-time radio broadcaster who hosts the kind of talk radio where listeners actually get to talk so people can tune in to dialogue, not one-sided, table-pounding rants and ad hominems.

In addition to plying his trade, he writes a regular column for the Sacramento Bee, as well as for over 150 radio stations via the Ross Brittain Report. He plays classical and stride piano, studies film, cooks, bakes, and drives both his wife and his daughter crazy.

“I’m interested in almost everything,” he says. “I’m a generalist in an era of specialization, and I like it that way.”

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