Arizona proves yet again that religion divides us

Religion has recently sundered Arizona.

Three times in the past few days, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has learned about the divisiveness of government prayer in that state.

First, the Phoenix City Council laudably opted for a moment of silence, as FFRF has advocated for years (after a not-so-laudable emergency measure to avoid an invocation by the Satanic Temple). Its meeting dragged on for hours, with scores of citizens commenting passionately on the issue. 

Next, the Legislature prohibited any invocations that do not call on a higher power. Arizona state Rep. Juan Mendez delivered a historic atheist invocation to the Statehouse in 2013. (FFRF presented him our Emperor Has No Clothes award for this brave act of open secularism.) Mendez gave another secular invocation in 2014. But this year, he was banned from doing so because his opening remarks would not address a higher power. This clearly violates the U.S. Supreme Court precedent (Town of Greece v. Galloway) that allows government prayer but only if minority faiths and atheists are heard, too.

Finally, FFRF is getting reports that at a Feb. 9 Chino Valley Town Council meeting, the mayor ejected a rabbi who protested the mayor’s prayer “in Jesus’ name.” FFRF had written on behalf of local complainants to the Town Council on Jan. 14 explaining that the prayers were illegal and divisive.

According to local media, Mayor Chris Marley initially promised to stop delivering prayers, but then changed his mind and gave a Christian invocation. He initially read a “disclaimer,” claiming the prayer was only his personal belief. Rabbi Adele Plotkin started to complain. Marley warned she would be removed if she continued, so she stopped. After Marley ended his prayer in Jesus’ name, Plotkin stood up and loudly protested. Marley had a police officer remove the rabbi from the room. So much for free speech and petitioning the government for redress of grievances.

The divisiveness of mixing religion with government is no surprise to FFRF. We get thousands of complaints every year — nearly 5,000 last year — from citizens around the country who are alienated and ostracized when their government endorses one religion over another or religion over nonreligion.

Christian prayers at government meetings alienate non-Christians, but they also violate one of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus condemns public prayer as hypocrisy: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men.” Matthew 6:5-6.

Jesus’ point is simple: People who wear their piety on their sleeves are hypocrites. Government officials are free to pray at any time — before, during or after their meetings. But that is not enough for some, who misuse their office to promote their personal religious views. In the process they denigrate themselves, their office, their community, their religion and, according to the bible, Jesus himself.

Government prayer has been divisive since the beginning. As Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman points out in an article for Bloomberg View, it has no place in government.

Officials need to get off their knees and get to work.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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