By: Jeremy Dys – dailysignal.com – March 3, 2019
Opening public meetings with prayer is such a long-standing American tradition that it is puzzling why some continue to seek the demise of the practice based on subjective claims that such prayers are “inappropriate and divisive.”
Consider these news reports just since Jan. 26:
A newspaper in Venice, Florida, reported that the Venice City Council may end its practice of praying before public meetings, following a complaint by a group from Wisconsin.
In Ohio, members of the New Carlisle City Council changed their premeeting prayers to a moment of silence to end an emerging controversy.
In Las Vegas, the Clark County School District ended prayers entirely, again after a “watchdog” group complained.
In Connersville, Indiana, the city council reconsidered its policies after a local resident asked to present an invocation that is secular, rather than religious. Following their lead, county leaders reportedly are considering doing the same.
The West Virginia House of Delegates now faces a complaint for the secondslong prayer opening its recent session—this only a few weeks after suggestions that the city of Wheeling, West Virginia, switch to a secular prayer.
These attacks on the time-honored tradition of legislative invocations not only ignore history and tradition, but also the unequivocal language of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has twice in the last half-century upheld the longstanding, religiously expressive practice of legislative prayer.
Last year, in American Legion v. AHA, a plurality of justices noted that legislative invocations “begun by the First Congress stand out as an example of respect and tolerance for differing views, an honest endeavor to achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination, and a recognition of the important role that religion plays in the lives of many Americans.”
Perhaps it is those who call for an end to such practices who are inappropriate and divisive. They complain the prayers exemplify lack of tolerance for opposing views, but, as the justices point out, legislative prayers actually highlight “respect and tolerance.” They demand inclusivity and decry discrimination, but the justices see such invocations as straightforward efforts to “achieve inclusivity and nondiscrimination.”
The justices are right that when we recognize the “role religion plays in the lives of many Americans,” we exude respect and tolerance and demonstrate genuine inclusivity. Sadly—despite 200-plus years of tradition and nearly 40 years of Supreme Court precedent affirming its constitutionality—criticisms of the practice remain rampant.
When legislative prayer is attacked, it’s not to provide inclusivity, but to censor religion. It is disrespectful and deeply divisive to demand that legislative prayers be silenced because someone has an aversion to religion.
Demanding that legislative prayers end, be neutered of the religious tradition that informs the prayer-giver, or be forced into ever-increasing secularity “provides a heckler’s veto to voices on the fringe,” as Judge Thomas Ambro of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit wrote last August in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.
But it was Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, concurring with his court’s decision to uphold the practice of legislator-led prayer in Bormuth v. County of Jackson, who explains it most eloquently:
History judges us in this area. We do not judge history. For all of American history, such prayers have been allowed, whether invoking Jesus, God, or something else, whether by government-paid chaplains or by the elected officials themselves. And for all of American history, the United States Supreme Court has authorized such prayers. No one doubted the practice for most of our history.
Neither should anyone else doubt the constitutionality of opening public meetings with prayer. Legislative prayers provide a meaningful opportunity to solemnize the meetings of government. They invite lawmakers to consider their place in the universe and even provide an opportunity to invoke divine guidance in legislating. Accommodating the religious beliefs of not only lawmakers, but private citizens, demonstrates a respect and diversity often missing from public life.
Those who prefer the practice of opening meetings with prayer are right to wince anytime someone demands their expiration. As Chief Justice Warren Burger noted in Marsh v. Chambers in 1983, legislative invocations are “part of the fabric of our society.”
And so they should remain.