Religious leaders split on prayer in government meetings

Religious and government leaders watch as Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on Christian invocations

The Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of opening government meetings with Christian prayer.

When the Rev. Bob Lawrence of OpenTable United Church of Christ in Owasso, Okla., delivered the invocation at the Owasso City Council meeting earlier this year, he closed his prayer with, “We pray in the names of all that are holy.”

“They were all expecting ‘in Jesus’ name’ at the end there,” Lawrence said, “and I didn’t do it.”

There was no chorus of “amens” from the council members or citizens in attendance as Lawrence finished.

“If I had said, ‘And we pray this knowing that we serve the greatest God in the world, and our God is No. 1, in Jesus’ name,’” he added, “it would’ve been a much more hearty response.”

As the Supreme Court hears oral argument Wednesday in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, religious leaders and religious-liberty advocates are closely watching how the court will resolve a dispute over the constitutionality of a town council’s opening its public meetings with predominantly Christian prayer. When the judgment comes down, it could have wide-ranging implications across the U.S.

The Greece case involves a legal challenge by two non-Christian residents of the upstate New York town to the council’s practice of opening almost all its public sessions with prayer in Jesus’ name.

An appeals court held that because the overwhelming majority of prayers were Christian, the practice violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from aligning itself with a particular religion.

Legal experts say the case will have enormous implications for communities that open legislative sessions with prayer and for those that have weathered conflicts over what the nature of the prayer should be.

Lawrence, who also serves as the executive director of the Tulsa Interfaith Alliance, objects to the prayer in Jesus’ name that typically opens city council sessions in Owasso, a Tulsa suburb.

“Too often what happens with sectarian prayer,” he said, “is it is used to invoke a certain Christian belief in terms of how things need to be done in the meeting.

“As a Christian minister, I can understand that is an aspect of what we do. But as a United States citizen, I am challenged by the belief that that is our objective as a country.”

Backlash both ways

In Greece, supporters of the town’s position insist the religious freedom of Christians is at stake.

Pastor Vince DiPaola of Greece’s Lakeshore Church, who has delivered invocations at the council meetings, said the “majority of people certainly believe in God in our community. The majority of people would believe in Jesus Christ. And so it represents our community, and it would be pathetic if our community could not even express itself in that way.”

But those objecting to sectarian prayer can face hostility in their communities. In Greece, according to the lower court’s findings, the plaintiffs in the case were called “God haters” and received warnings from others in the community that they should “be careful.”

In a similar case, in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals struck down sectarian prayer in 2004, Darla Wynne, a Wiccan, objected to Christian prayer at council meetings in Great Falls, S.C. According to the court opinion, Wynne’s fellow citizens told her she “wasn’t wanted” and “should leave town” and accused her of being a “Satanist.”

Michael Cluff, who leads the South Jersey chapter of the American Humanist Association, is closely watching what the Galloway, N.J., Town Council will do in the wake of the Greece decision. Over the past year, the Galloway council has debated what types of prayer to sanction and, after changing its policy to allow only a moment of silence, is now permitting nondenominational prayer.

He worries that a Supreme Court decision finding the Greece’s prayer practice constitutional could result in sectarian prayer in his town.

“It’s troublesome for me as an atheist,” Cluff said. “Secularism is a neutral position. Government should be neutral about religion. It’s not atheistic to say nothing.

“If I’m Hindu or atheist or Jewish or Catholic or anything, the town council should not be pandering to my particular theological view.”

It’s more politics than religion –
it’s an abuse of religion, actually.

In some cases, efforts to make opening prayers more diverse have resulted in backlash. In the Oklahoma House four years ago, 20 out of 100 representatives voted against making the prayer of an openly gay minister, the Rev. Scott Jones, part of the official legislative record, a process that is typically pro forma. Before the vote, 16 House members walked out after Jones thanked his fiancé as part of his prayer.

Three years ago, the Hartford, Conn., city council rescinded an invitation to a local imam to pray during the week marking the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks after receiving complaints — many of which came from outside the community.

Divisive dilemma

Mongi Dhaouadi, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations, said he did not object if city council prayers are predominantly Christian.

“We do not have an issue with starting meetings with prayer, as long as it’s inclusive and not divisive,” Dhaouadi said. “If there are Muslims in your community, Muslims should be included in the rotation.”

But some religious leaders object to the practice even if a diverse rotation of clergy is invited to participate.

“It’s more politics than religion — it’s an abuse of religion, actually,” said Rabbi Carl Choper, president of the Interfaith Alliance of Pennsylvania. He has been invited to pray at the state legislature in Harrisburg, he said, but “I didn’t want to be window dressing.”

The Rev. Henry Green of Heritage Baptist Church in Annapolis, Md., said he worries even diverse legislative prayer can be divisive. He said groups of many different faiths have “worked well together” in his community.

“Government, the more local you go, the more closely you have to live together,” he said. “Let’s not do something that’s going to divide the community.”

Green said “right-wing fundamentalist Christians” are pushing legislative prayer, which “is diminishing the role of prayer and doing exactly the opposite of what Christ taught about prayer.”

Even in small towns in the Bible Belt, Baptist clergy who maintain their denomination’s tradition of church-state separation object to the practice.

Pastor Daniel Glaze of First Baptist Church of Ahoskie, a town of 5,000 people in northeastern North Carolina, said the “simple demographics of our town” have resulted in prayer at the town council being Christian. The council meets once a month, and Glaze offers a prayer once or twice a year, even though he has concerns about the practice.

In his prayers, he said, “I challenge those present in the meeting” to remember “justice and welfare of all our persons, regardless of their race or economic class.”

“I don’t love it,” Glaze added, “but I feel like I can do so with keeping those boundaries.”

Pastor Courtney Krueger of First Baptist Church of Pendleton, S.C., a town of 3,000 people, said his town’s council does not open its sessions with any prayer. 

“Sectarian prayers don’t serve any positive purpose in official government settings,” he said. Not having legislative prayers, he said, “is the way it should be.”

“The last thing I’d want to do,” Glaze said, would be to pray in a manner that suggested to any citizens attending the meeting that their “interests are not as fully represented here” or that they were “not welcome.”

That, he added, “would really break my heart.”

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter