The power of generic public prayer

Suffice it to say that the Newspaper That Lands in My Front Yard has a complicated church-state story on its hands. It’s one of those stories that takes place when civil religion collides with free speech (and old local traditions) and the usual suspects start getting mad.

Let me note, right up front, that I have been a skeptic about the symbolism of state-endorsed prayers ever since my Texas childhood, when public-school officials tried to force me to be one of the preacher’s kids who “volunteered” to pray over the high-school public address system. I refused, explaining that I was not anxious to be laughed at or to pray in a setting that would inspire derision or, at best, apathy. My father and my church backed me up on this issue — a rather old-school Baptist stance. I have been fascinated with church-state conflicts ever since, thus leading to my master’s degree in this subject.

Anyway, here is the top of the Baltimore Sun news feature in question:

The Lord is no longer being invoked at Salisbury City Council meetings for now, though he just received a standing invitation to the gatherings of the Frederick County Commission.

So goes the ever-fluctuating state of prayer at public meetings: Like the perennial disputes over displaying the Ten Commandments or a Nativity scene on public property, the practice of invoking the spiritual at meetings concerned with the more earthly issues of zoning or property taxes remains controversial in Maryland.

Last Monday the Salisbury council began its regular meeting with a moment of silence, replacing its customary prayer while the city attorney researches the practice’s propriety.

“It doesn’t belong in a governmental meeting,” said Laura Mitchell, a Salisbury councilwoman who questioned the practice of reciting the Lord’s Prayer before meetings. “Religion is a private matter. How someone prays, who they pray to, that’s their private business.”

This is a better than average story on these issues, in part because the Sun team was given the length to actually deal with some of the legal facts involved.

At the heart of the conflict, of course, is a basic question: Can the state stop people from praying in a public place? The question answer, of course, is no. However, note that the story never digs into a basic question — spoken prayers or silent prayers? Once you have said that people can pray aloud, you then face legal questions about what they can or cannot say, which usually boils down to whether the state will allow prayers in the name of Jesus Christ. Does the state have the right to mandate and/or ban Christian prayers? That’s tricky territory, whichever way you rule.

By the way, is a period of silence an easy answer? No. There are prayer traditions that cannot be honored — think Islam — while sitting silently in a chair. Can a civic official end a silent prayer with a visual symbol, such as the sign of the cross? That’s another issue. Hands raised in the air? I think you get the picture.

The Sun piece does offer this background:

The legal principle usually cited in cases involving public prayer is the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which bans Congress from making any laws establishing an official religion, or favoring one faith over another. In a case involving a Nebraska lawmaker who contended prayer at legislative sessions was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that invoking “Divine guidance” was a part of the country’s “unique history” and did not violate this clause.

But the ruling injected confusion into the debate as well, particularly a section that states: “The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. That being so, it is not for us to embark on a sensitive evaluation or to parse the content of a particular prayer.”

Despite the high court’s guidance, parsing is precisely what often occurs. Subsequent courts have come to review the content of prayers to determine whether they exploit, proselytize, advance or disparage any one religion and thus should not be allowed, Frederick County Attorney John Mathias told the county commissioners in a 15-page memorandum.

“Generally, the idea is not to mention a particular deity, such as Jesus Christ, or any other specific deity, but to call upon God or a supreme being,” Mathias said.

So generic prayer is supposed to be unoffensive. Got it.

The problem is that there are people on the church-state left and the right who are offended by generic prayer. It’s hard to offend atheists and Orthodox/orthodox Christians at the same time, but this kind of foggy civic prayer will do the trick.

This leads me to my primary journalistic criticism of the story. The Sun team seems to assume that there are “conservative” people who want to pray and “secular” people who do not. Then there are “church-state experts” who worry about all of this — from the liberal and/or secular side of the fence. The story does not include a single quotation from one of the many conservative church-state think tanks that have emerged on the American legal scene in the past 25 years or so.

This is a huge hole. There is, in other words, more to this story than whatever people say at the American Civil Liberties Union (an essential voice, do not get me wrong) and over at the University of Maryland. To cover this story, one needs to seek out the views of highly qualified voices on both sides of the debate.

Let me conclude by praising this story for finding a very rare church-state quote, one in which a public official manages to state — kind of — a positive case for generic prayer. Trust me, you don’t see this kind of quote very often. The opening reference is to a local political body that, by tradition, opens with its members reciting the Lord’s Prayer:

Terry Cohen has been on the council since 2007 and was elected council president in April. She is Jewish and doesn’t recite the prayer, although she didn’t think much about it until council member Mitchell brought it up. She started researching the issue and now worries that perhaps reciting a prayer that is so central to Christianity may violate the First Amendment clause.

“I’m very open on this issue,” she said. “Intellectually, I understand the safest route would be to have nothing at all. A moment of silence certainly can be acceptable. Folks could meditate, think inspirational thoughts, pray, do their grocery list.”

But she also has been a member of business groups that begin meetings with non-sectarian, non-denominational invocations and found them meaningful and helpful. “It really did set your mind in a good framework,” she said. “You had a sense of peace and a sense of purpose. However we decide to proceed, it can be done well.”

Silence works for everyone? Oh well. That raises the question of whether Cohen’s Jewish faith is Orthodox or Reform, doesn’t it? Like I said, these stories are hard to cover — period.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John M.

    Petitionary prayer can be performed in Islam while seated. It’s called “du’a”. “Salat”, which we think of as “normal” Muslim prayer (5 times a day, standing, kneeling, facing Mecca, etc.) is closer to what most Christians think of as “worship” rather than petitionary prayer.


  • Jerry

    It’s hard to offend atheists and Orthodox/orthodox Christians at the same time, but this kind of foggy civic prayer will do the trick.

    Sigh :-(

    This is one area where it’s impossible to satisfy everyone no matter how a story is written. Someone will find it biased. Even the best story that accurately reflects the situation will cause this reaction. That unfortunate fact is based, as you indicated, with policies that try to cut the baby in half and wind up with no one satisfied with the result, as you pointed out. I think even Solomon would have a hard time with this issue.

  • Mary

    I live in Frederick County, Maryland and am delighted that the county commissioners want to start with a prayer. One of the reasons given by the commissioners was that God’s guidance is always needed, never more so than in these difficult times with huge changes needed to our budgets to avoid financial collapse. Wish more businesses and government entities would turn to God in their decision making. Funny that the people who say “Just change the channel” when people complain about being offended by vulgar TV content go ballistic at any public mention of God.

  • Tmatt

    Yes. All well and good. But what did you think of the Sun coverage? That is the subject of my post after all.

  • Dave

    It’s difficult for me to assess the Sun coverage because I don’t know what actually happened.

    There seems to be a tendency in the Near South for jurisdictions to structure “non-sectarian” opening prayer that nonetheless bars the local Wiccan priestess from getting her turn at the mike, clearly a First Amendment problem not merely to people like me with an initiation in Wicca. Media coverage may actually mention this exclusion, but not elaborate on the Constitutional issue. I can’t give any MSM channel high marks on this.

    I don’t know the actual motivation of the jurisdiction in question along this line, so I can’t assess the coverage.

    This issue has been covered in the past fortnight on The Wild Hunt

  • Dave

    Oops, omit the “www” from the previously cited URL.

  • John M

    It also occurs to me that it would be very common for Muslims to start a meeting like a city council meeting with “bismillah irrahman irrahim”, “in the name of God, the merciful, the compassionate.” This phrase begins all surahs (chapters) of the Quran save for one, and is commonly invoked when starting almost anything in the Muslim world (speeches, books, eating dinner).

    This isn’t a “community prayer” per se, just something someone says, so I’m not even sure how it could be stopped if, say, the chair of a city council here in the U.S. happened to be Muslim and wanted to open city council meetings that way. Could one force a Christian (or Muslim) city councilman from saying “God willing” at the end of forward-looking statements?