A battle over prayer – and much more

Congressional Prayer Caucus' influence growing as it walks church-state line under banner of religious freedom

What started as a movement to "guard the right of individuals in America to pray" may have evolved into an effort to sanction specifically Christian beliefs.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

As the United States Supreme Court considers a closely watched church-state separation case this fall, it will have before it an amicus brief from members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, a group for which the issue at stake -- whether legislative sessions can be opened with exclusively Christian prayer -- is its reason for existence.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the lawmakers signed onto a brief written by a conservative Christian advocacy group, the Family Research Council. The brief stated their interest in the case was their concern "over the growing exclusion of longstanding and historically-accepted acknowledgments of the Divine and expressions of religious faith in this Nation."

Founded in 2005 by Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., the CPC -- an official caucus of the House of Representatives -- says it exists to "formally acknowledge the important role that prayer plays in American life and history and to monitor and work to guard the right of individuals in America to pray."

When Congress is in session, the members meet weekly in Room 219 of the U.S. Capitol to pray and "seek God’s wisdom and guidance in leading our great nation," according to a caucus promotional video. The caucus now boasts 97 members, mostly Republicans.

But critics charge that the group -- which counts more than one-fifth of the House of Representatives among its members -- distorts the meaning of religious freedom. Secular advocates and religious leaders say the CPC's claims that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that Christians' religious liberties are now under threat are false. Rather, critics say, the caucus' efforts to place a government imprimatur on Christian prayer and inject a particular religious view into policy and legislation violate the separation of church and state. Religious leaders criticize how the caucus overlooks other theological views and uses prayer as a cover for passing legislation that restricts the rights and economic opportunities of citizens.

The CPC has consistently framed its issues as a fight for religious freedom under siege. It opposed overturning the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy and continues to maintain that its repeal infringes on the religious freedom of service members who believe homosexuality is a sin. It has sought to have Congress declare a Spiritual Heritage Week and a Ten Commandments Weekend and to take action to "protect the symbols and traditions of Christmas." It has accused President Obama of not mentioning God enough.

Forbes recently said religious freedom is becoming a "second-tier right" and that opponents of same-sex marriage and abortion are marginalized. He has argued the government is imposing "a state-created orthodoxy" that "deems support for traditional marriage unacceptable," "discredits those who believe that life begins at conception" and "creates a regulatory framework to prevent them from fully participating in the public square."

Beyond prayer

To the CPC, prayer is not just a religious act but protects America from what it considers the nation's moral decline.

"Just as Nehemiah built a wall around Jerusalem, we want to build a wall of prayer around our nation's capital," Rep. Mike McIntyre, the North Carolina Democrat who co-chairs the caucus with Forbes, recently told Charisma magazine. McIntyre was referring to the biblical figure who rebuilt the city's walls after the destruction of the first temple and reinstituted Torah observance.

A spokesperson for the caucus did not respond to requests from Al Jazeera to interview Forbes or McIntyre.

Backing the caucus is the Congressional Prayer Caucus Foundation, a nonprofit organization, which has also set its sights on the states. The CPC, with the foundation and the associated campaign PrayUSA, has helped form prayer caucuses in 12 state legislatures. In 2010, Mississippi became the first state with a legislative prayer caucus, with Virginia forming one in 2011. Legislators in Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, North Carolina and Oklahoma launched prayer caucuses in 2012 and 2013.

In Missouri last year, the prayer caucus helped push a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution to guarantee citizens the right to pray. Voters overwhelmingly approved the measure, but church-state separation advocates countered that the right to pray is already protected by the U.S. and state constitutions and that the amendment could be used to deprive non-Christians of their constitutional rights.

The theological question that has to be raised is, Will the prayer caucuses be used as a cover as people implement policies that prey – P-R-E-Y – on people?

When Oklahoma legislators announced their prayer caucus in 2012, two-thirds of the state's legislators signed its "call to prayer." The caucus urged citizens to promote its activities at church. Tea Party groups also promoted it. In 2012 and 2013, the Oklahoma legislature passed some of the most restrictive anti-abortion and anti-contraception bills in the country, some of which were subsequently overturned in court.

The foundation, which is supporting the state caucuses, frames its mission as mobilizing pious believers against enemies of religious freedom. Its blog warns, "America finds itself in a veiled, but deadly confrontation for religious liberty" but "armies of God -- composed of faithful leaders and citizens -- are assembling together in prayer and action." It cites a struggle waged "at the doorsteps of our state Capitols, city-councils and academic institutions."

Lea Carawan, the foundation's executive director, did not respond to interview requests.

Growing concern

One foundation project aims to place the motto "In God We Trust” in public places around the country. The foundation warns that if “God is removed from the United States, it allows the government freedom to set the moral order of right and wrong” instead of “the belief that God sets the moral order.”

At the CPC’s urging, the House voted last year to reaffirm "In God we trust" as the national motto. Edwina Rogers, executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, pointed out the motto was a vestige of the Cold War and "not the vision of the Founding Fathers."

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said formation of the state legislative caucuses has "the potential to have much greater impact at the state level than in Congress." Rogers said her organization was "very worried" about the effect these caucuses will have, because their members drive "religious-dogma legislation" such as bills requiring the teaching of creationism in public schools.

"They believe that the Bible does give answers on public policy questions, and that's why they're praying for very specific things, like 'Save America from this assault by humanists and separationists against the fabric of the country,'" Lynn said. He noted that some CPC members hold powerful positions, citing Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., who chairs the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution.

Rogers said, "We see it as them demanding religious privileging" and wanting "to insert religious dogma into our secular law." She said the SCA finds it unacceptable that a caucus based on one religion would have the sanction of Congress and the use of taxpayer-funded resources.

In North Carolina, where budget cuts and restrictive abortion and voting-rights legislation sparked the Moral Mondays protests, objections are less about church-state separation and more about theology. There, the legislative prayer caucus claims to connect "elected leaders, citizens, churches and organizations in your state that are committed to pray and take action to protect your freedom to trust in God."

"The theological question that has to be raised," said the Rev. Dr. William Barber II, president of the North Carolina State Conference of the NAACP and a leader of the Moral Mondays movement, "is will the prayer caucuses be used as a cover as people implement policies that prey -- P-R-E-Y -- on people? That is a serious biblical moral question."

Dr. Willie Jennings, an associate professor of theology and black church studies at Duke Divinity School who has participated in the Moral Mondays protests, said a legislative prayer group doesn't necessarily infringe on church-state separation but poses a theological problem.

"The problem comes when they are shut off from the wider conversation in the wider Christian community," he said. "It doesn’t reflect the breadth of resources and knowledge in terms of Christian thought."

Praying, said Barber, "is fundamental to the Christian faith." But the claim that the right to pray is being infringed on, he said, is a "smoke screen."

He criticized conservatives for advocating for school prayer, for example, but then voting to cut education funding.

Prayer that is "disconnected from a prophetic call for justice," Barber added, "actually becomes a form of deep religious hypocrisy."

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