The Founders, History, and Public Prayer

Posted on November 21, 2013 in Religious Freedom by

SCOTUS PrayerA case with incredible implications for the religious freedoms of Americans came to the Supreme Court recently. In Town of Greece v. Galloway the high court heard oral arguments as to whether or not a town council has the constitutional right to open with public prayer. This case has been ongoing for many years and finally made it to the Supreme Court on November 6th.

The last time the Supreme Court heard a public prayer case was in 1983 when it ruled in favor of public prayer in the Nebraska legislature in Marsh v. Chambers. The question now is whether or not the court will stay consistent in recognizing the constitutional right for any public assembly or body to open with prayer.

Alliance Defending Freedom president Allan Sears, along with colleague Joe Infranco, has written a historically accurate article citing the Founder’s frequent use of prayer at everything from the Constitutional Convention to holiday proclamations. They write:

“Despite deep religious differences, the Founders had something important in common: They prayed…As to how the Founders viewed legislative prayer, there can be no question; they considered it a desired accommodation of religion, and not coercion. The Founders also held in common a belief that can best be described as God’s providential direction of history and the value of prayer. Attempts to deny this will not refute history…The Founders, with rare exceptions, also saw no problem with issuing proclamations of thanksgiving to God, calls for fasting, Christian congregations using government facilities for worship, and even using federal funds to finance missions to Native Americans.”

Some disagree with these historical records and say subjecting people to public prayer is a form of coercion, or even religious discrimination. They assert that public prayer makes people an unwilling participant in the prayer which is a violation of a person’s religious freedoms and First Amendment rights.

In a separate article, Joe Infranco addresses this concern:

“One of the underlying issues will be the claim that someone who hears a prayer in a public setting has participated in it. And if that person has been forced to pray merely by hearing a prayer, this amounts to improper government coercion. Government officials, from Congress on down, see the matter differently; a ceremonial observation forces no one to join in, and merely hearing amounts to no more than, well – hearing it.”

Infranco goes on to argue against this concern by rightly asserting that if a person addresses a city council seeking to build a playground, the council does not inherently agree with the person’s viewpoint simply because they heard him speak. Such a notion is ridiculous in such a setting and yet this is what opponents of public prayer are arguing. They claim that merely hearing someone prayer means that all within earshot are now participating and agreeing with said prayer. It is an absurd notion.

Some have suggested that a “non-sectarian” prayer would be acceptable to all parties. But as the oral arguments at the Supreme Court revealed, such a prayer doesn’t exist. Here is part of a conversation between attorney Douglas Laycock and Justices Alito and Scalia regarding the fictitious non-sectarian prayer:

“Standing before the court, the residents’ lawyer, Douglas Laycock, suggested that a nonsectarian prayer would be satisfactory. Justice Alito wasn’t so sure.

“‘How could you do it?’ Justice Alito asked. ‘Give me an example of a prayer that would be acceptable to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus … Wiccans, Baha’i.’

“‘And atheists,’ Justice Antonin Scalia added. ‘Throw in atheists, too.’

“Mr. Laycock reminded the justices that atheists were already out of luck based on the court’s prior decisions. Then, riffling through his documents, he suggested, ‘The prayers to the Almighty, prayers to the Creator.’

“‘To ‘the Almighty,’’ Justice Alito said skeptically. ‘So if — if a particular religion believes in more than one god, that’s acceptable to them?’

“Justice Scalia, often impatient in religion cases, couldn’t resist. ‘What about devil worshipers?’

“Over the laughter of the courtroom, Mr. Laycock said meekly, ‘Well, if devil worshipers believe the devil is the almighty, they might be okay. But they’re probably out.’”

As any reasonable person can see, and as the attorney and justices concluded, there is no possible way to fashion a prayer that will satisfy people of all faiths, or no faith at all. Does that mean we should eliminate prayers altogether at town councils and other public and government occurrences?

No, I don’t think so. As the Founder’s recognized, prayer is not coercion, simply hearing a prayer does not mean a person agrees and has now participated in it. Allowing prayer is a reasonable accommodation to those who wish to take part. For those who do not they are free to remain silent (they don’t even have to close their eyes).

The idea that a non-sectarian prayer would appease everyone is also false. Even a non-sectarian prayer would be unpalatable to atheists and other people with no faith as they would see it just another government endorsement of faith. The moment of silence won’t do either for the same reasons.

The historical reality is that our Founder’s saw no problem with such prayers and evidenced by their engagement in prayers at every step of government from the earliest foundations of our country. It was and still remains a reasonable accommodation of religious belief that does not violate the constitution. The Supreme Court would do well to continue such a constitutional position.

Personally, I can think of nothing more that our country needs at this time in history than prayer. Just as Benjamin Franklin saw a need to pause the drafting of the Constitution in order to implore the Almighty for his divine wisdom, we would do well to do the same today.

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