Government meetings sure could use a prayer

Posted Thursday, May. 08, 2014  comments  Print Reprints

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When the Supreme Court rules on a case involving the Supreme Being, there’s always heck to pay.

It happened again this week when the court’s conservative majority decided that local governments could open their meetings with prayers, much to the torment of the liberal justices.

As a liberal, I think the court’s ruling was reasonable but I admit to being a bit tormented myself. Just as I find public displays of affection unseemly, I find public displays of adoration a bit out of order, too.

This is especially true when it comes to government leaders. Patriotism may be the last refuge of a scoundrel, but these days many politicians use religion to prop up the flag.

From the earliest days of the republic, Congress has opened its sessions with a prayer.

So when it comes to prayers before doing the public’s business, while it may affront good sense, history is nevertheless on the side of the court’s majority. If Congress can do it, other government bodies should be able to say prayers too, because there goes the neighborhood.

Even so, I am not sure local elected officials need a blessing to decide if Main Street needs another stop light. The Almighty is busy enough without being asked to get involved with everything.

But in Greece, a community in upstate New York near Rochester, a newly elected town supervisor decided in 1999 that what was needed was a prayer before the town meetings. So local pastors were recruited and took turns being a “chaplain for the month.”

Not surprisingly, as the community is predominantly Christian, the ministers were all Christian and said Christian prayers, some overtly so, others more general.

That situation wasn’t anybody’s fault and it all went blessedly well until contemporary American life intruded. Two people took offense and sued.

In the end, the plaintiffs turned out not to have a prayer and reluctantly I have to say the court was correct. Yet danger undoubtedly lurks here: The trouble with religious zealots is that if you give them an inch, they will take you a mile closer to theocracy.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s opinion suggests limits to the court’s tolerance — no proselytizing in invocations, no demeaning other faiths or those people with none, no discrimination in matters of faith.

On that last score, when complaints were received, the town made it clear that anyone – even non-believers – could give an invocation. A Wiccan priestess actually accepted this offer. A town that offers a representative of Wicca, said to be a pagan faith associated with witchcraft, the chance to say the invocation is clearly not in the business of establishing religion.

But most of all I think there’s an issue here beyond what the court decided: That we need to stop fighting over matters so trivial as ceremonial prayers before municipal meetings.

Of course, those who present prayers should as a matter of simple courtesy use inclusive language. But if they don’t, respect for others’ beliefs is the civilized course.

Reg Henry is deputy editorial-page editor for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

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