How shall local governments pray?

city council prayerGood reporting generally involves some time, coordination and good footwork. Forget secret meetings in Washington, D.C., parking garages. Some of the best stories sit underneath reporter’s noses. A little creativity and thinking outside the box can reveal an aspect of a community that everyone appreciates regardless of which side of the issue they fall.

Exhibit A for this type of journalism is this recent story in The Grand Rapids Press that surveyed the prayer practices of the region’s local legislative bodies. I am sure this story initially seemed a bit daunting, but the journalistic results must be satisfying:

GRAND RAPIDS – About three-fourths of local governments open meetings with prayer, a Press review found, and most of the prayers are overtly Christian, often concluding “in Jesus’ name.”

But even among those that begin with an invocation, practices vary. As a minister and Grand Rapids mayor, George Heartwell combined “reflection” with “invocation” on the City Commission agenda as a way to offer inclusive prayers.

I remember doing these types of stories in the various small towns I worked and lived in during my college internships days. Sometimes the stories involved calling a half-dozen or more local government bodies and other times it involved burning some foot leather and visiting a series of council meetings. Without fail the stories were well received because the community’s readers learned more about themselves. I just wish I had thought of this particular idea.

The story is pegged on a recent request from “a Wisconsin-based free thinkers’ group to strike the phrase ‘strive to serve God’ from the city of Hudsonville’s mission statement.”

For one reason or another the American Civil Liberties Union isn’t quoted in a story that involves church-state separation, but that’s likely because they aren’t involved in this particular legal squabble. The organization’s relative equivalent, the Washington-based American Center for Law & Justice, is involved in defending the city, and we get some analysis of the current constitutional law governing this matter:

“The issue of prayer before any sort of public meeting is pretty well established, and in favor of communities doing it. As long as it’s ‘nonsectarian,’” he said.

He did note that the guiding Supreme Court decision is vague, and lower courts have made various rulings, leaving room for interpretation.

The ACLJ is a religious-based group involved in court challenges “specifically dedicated to the ideal that religious freedom and freedom of speech are inalienable, God-given rights.”

But even Manion emphasized the requirement that prayer be nonsectarian — for two reasons: It’s easier to defend in court. And it’s just good manners.

The Wisconsin group protesting the involvement of religion — the Freedom From Religion Foundation — is quoted saying that a survey shows that 16 percent of people are not religious but it’s not clear what segment of the population was surveyed. The viewpoint missing from the story is that this is less about where to draw the separation of church and state line and more about protecting the rights of the minority from the majority.

The story rightly focuses on the individual practices of the various local governments. The reporter brings up subtle distinctions, which is appropriate because slight changes in the wording of a prayer can mean a world of difference in a legal battle.

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  • Asinus Gravis

    What is a “non-sectarian” prayer? That sounds a lot like a “secular” prayer.

    If a prayer is addressed to “God” that would seem to leave out the Buddhists (among others) and relate the prayer to theistic “sects.” In that case it would seem to be a “sectarian” prayer. If the prayer is addressed to “To Whom It May Concern,” that is somewhat likely to offend the theistic sect members. Would that qualify it as “non-sectarian”?

    Is is all right to cite a particular god in a “non-sectarian” prayer? Surely, many Christians think that is being done when the prayer is addressed to “God”–being unaware that a number of the other religions pray to a god that is, in English, frequently called “God.”

    Would it be all right for a Jewish person in such a gathering to pray to “YHWH”? Or a Hindu to pray to “Vishnu”? Or a Muslim to pray to “Allah”? Does it matter that YHWH, Vishnu, or Allah are sometimes translated as “God”?

  • Dave

    Asinus Gravis, one might address such a prayer to the Creator or the Spirit of Justice (supposedly a concern of local governments).

    But it’s pretty thin gruel.