Should governments hold prayers before or during public meetings?
Nothing fails like prayer in government
Gaylor is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. Calling upon other elected officials and citizens to rise and pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of county government. Supervisors, after all, are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They don’t need to worship on taxpayers’ time. That line between the Jeffersonian “wall of separation between church and state” is being crossed when elected officials misuse their authority to promote their personal religious views at government functions.
A government board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion. Such governmental endorsement of religion excludes the 15 percent of the American population that is nonreligious (American Religious Identification Survey 2008), including more than 1 million Virginians.
The numbers of nonreligious are growing rapidly in this country, as shown by the Pew Forum’s survey last year finding one in five adults has no religious affiliation. We nonreligious citizens are offended, excluded and made to feel like political outsiders when our government oversteps its power to conduct or impose prayer. Since government prayer often invokes Jesus and Christianity, it also turns those of other faiths into second-class citizens.
America was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom from religion in government. They sought to escape tyrants who told them which church to support, what religious rituals to engage in, or what to believe or disbelieve. Whether to pray, whether to believe in a god who answers prayer, is an intensely personal decision protected under our First Amendment as a paramount matter of conscience.
The U.S. founders who adopted our entirely godless Constitution knew there can be no religious liberty without the freedom to dissent. If the framers of our Constitution found no need to pray when they adopted our secular Constitution, why does the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors need to pray over sewers, building permits and variances? Isn’t it a bit vain to imagine that a deity, if there is one, would be interested in the prayerful demands of supervisors anyway?
If constitutional injunctions do not impress, perhaps scriptural ones will. Christians who know their Bible are familiar with the biblical injunction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, condemning public prayer as hypocrisy, and advising:
“Enter into thy closet and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret.”
American government has always prayed
Staver is chairman of Liberty Counsel and vice president of Liberty University.
Prayer is intricately woven into the very fabric of America. Public prayer and recognition of God in government meetings and by government officials has been a long-established practice, both before and after independence was declared.
In 1774 during the First Continental Congress in Philadelphia, delegates voted to open each meeting with prayer. Ten months later, as war raged, these same men would call for a day of fasting and prayer throughout the colonies. The Second Continental Congress began with a prayer service in a Philadelphia church.
On July 9, 1776, just one day after the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly, the delegates voted unanimously for a chaplain of Congress, who immediately took the floor to offer a prayer. The first Senate resolved to hold a church service in St. Paul’s chapel immediately following the swearing in of President George Washington.
Opponents of prayer in public meetings often cry that the practice is a violation of the “separation of church and state.” But this phrase does not appear anywhere in the Constitution. Rather, Thomas Jefferson used it in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association.
However, Jefferson also wrote another letter to William Johnson in 1823 in which he said it is important to “carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” As president, Jefferson issued a proclamation to decree a day of “thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God” and included a prayer in both of his inaugural addresses.
Whenever James Madison — the father of the Constitution — would speak of an establishment of religion, he always meant it as a reference to the government giving preference to an “established” church, as Great Britain had done with the Church of England, never in reference to God, religious activities or public prayer. In 1853, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary wrote that the framers of the First Amendment “did not intend to prohibit a just expression of religious devotion by the legislators of the nation, even in their public character as legislators.”
Clearly the nation’s Founders never meant to remove prayer and references to God from the public square. Such a view is a distortion of the First Amendment and a denial of the principles in the nation’s birth certificate — the Declaration of Independence.