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All those in favor say amen

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While working for a newspaper company in Chicago’s western suburbs, I wrote about two municipal governments that had become embroiled in the issue of opening public meetings with prayer.

For one community, the question was whether its City Council favored a specific religious sentiment among all others through its choice of ministers. An officer with the Freedom From Religion Foundation who lived in this community objected to the overwhelmingly Christian nature of the prayers.

The second community wrestled with whether prayers at City Council meetings should be reinstated. They were offered years before but at some point had ceased.

In one opinion piece on these communities, I questioned whether residents who welcomed prayers at government meetings would be just as enthusiastic about invocations offered by minority religious groups rather than by Christian ministers. A response sent to me by one woman epitomized the entire problem with allowing public bodies to delve into matters of personal faith.

She said she would not have a problem with representatives of other religions, such as Muslims or Buddhists, being excluded from offering prayers at the City Council meetings. Her reason for accepting such discrimination? She told me she would not expect to be invited to “their temples” to offer prayers reflecting her faith, so not having these groups pray prior to the beginning of council meetings would be reasonable.

It seems this woman views the City Council boardroom as an extension of her own church. And she believes it’s entirely appropriate for her municipal government to reflect her stance on religious issues.

This is why public bodies have no business invoking religion of any kind. Governmental bodies act in the name of all their constituents, and for them to invoke any deity is a betrayal of the principle of religious liberty. How can a member of a minority religious group expect equal respect by a local government when that public body said this person is embarking on the wrong spiritual quest?

Additional problems crop up when residents believe they have an understanding with their local governments when it comes to religion. Now that their public body has confirmed they are on the side of the angels concerning issues of faith, they can expect this governing board to do their bidding when making policy.

It’s at this point that elected officials cross the line in tip-toeing between church and state. They curry favor with people of a particular religious faith and pass laws according to their constituents’ beliefs.

And in facing opposition when it’s time to be re-elected, they often call in these chips so they can stay in office. How many times have we seen politicians contrast their religious views to those of their opponents?

The danger in not abiding by the constitutional principle of keeping church and state separate is that social policy is frequently molded based solely on the predominant religious sentiment. In the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case Lemon v. Kurtman, a three-pronged test was outlined to determine if a piece of legislation violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Sadly, many laws have ignored these prudent criteria without being overturned or even challenged.

The first part of this test, called the Entanglement Prong, says the statute in question may not lead to “excessive government entanglement” with religious matters. The second part of the test, called the Effect Prong, says the statute may not advance or inhibit any religious practice. And the third part of the test, called the Purpose Prong, says the statute must serve a secular legislative purpose.

The recent Supreme Court decision in the Town of Greece v. Galloway case did not necessarily overturn the test called for in Lemon v. Kurtman, as this recent issue was not about the constitutionality of some legislation. It pertained to opening government meetings in the upstate New York town of Greece with prayer.

Allowing public bodies to sanction prayer is more ambiguous than a specific law since no one is compelled to join in or take it seriously. But as it opens the door to complications down the road, legislative prayer is a bad practice that should be avoided.

Elected officials and/or residents are free to pray by themselves or in groups prior to municipal meetings to seek divine guidance. And since making the prayer public shouldn’t impact how effective it is, why not keep it to themselves?

Public prayer at government meetings is often not a sincere effort on the part of elected officials to become spiritually enlightened. They can be just as in touch with the divine through private reflection.

The real issue here is that elected officials frequently need to show their constituents how religious they are by conducting public prayers. This turns a spiritual practice into a political one, and earnest people of faith should feel exploited. These politicians are appealing to their religious sentiments to secure votes down the line.

Let us prey, indeed.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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