Sunday’s editorial weighs in on the topic of whether or not to further sanitize prayer at government meetings:
Stop by any meeting of elected officials in our area and one of the first things you’ll hear – usually right before the Pledge of Allegiance – is an invocation. These prayers, sometimes offered by local ministers and sometimes by officials themselves, have a long history in our Bible Belt communities.
Some of our municipalities – Surfside Beach and Myrtle Beach, for instance – have gone so far as to recognize the invocation in their municipal code. The S.C. House and Senate also explicitly call for an invocation as part of their official rules of business. In other words, we’re a praying people.
But all of that praying does not always sit well with some. Now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, a case from North Carolina (Joyner v. Forsyth County) is seeking to limit the language used by supplicants when it comes to the prayers offered at government meetings.
The case dates at least to October 2006, when the N.C. branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter of complaint to Forsyth County, N.C., about the prayers that were held before the county commissioners’ meetings, and specifically all of the references to Jesus. It’s been working its way through the courts since 2007, and the complainants won in the most recent courtroom, at the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. The case has attracted attention from around the nation, and in November, 27 senators from South Carolina, including local leaders Luke Rankin and Ray Cleary, filed their own amicus brief in the case, siding with Forsyth County and asking the Supreme Court to hear the case.
Summarizing the entire case is beyond the scope of this limited space, but the central issue turns on the content of prayers. The question at stake is not whether prayer is allowed by political bodies. In fact, it’s clear that it is, according to previous rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s ruling in the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers case called legislative prayer “part of the fabric of our society.” Instead, the question in this case is whether that prayer should be sanitized, cleaned of sectarian references to a particular brand of religion in an attempt to avoid offending any who may be listening. We think not.
If the courts call for government to edit and censor the text of prayers, they reduce them to a mere formality, without substance, rendering them not only bland but also removing any introspective or higher benefit they may have provided. 4th Circuit Judge Paul V. Niemeyer said as much in his eloquent dissent on the most recent ruling:
“In a stated sensitivity to references that might identify the religion practiced by the religious leader, the majority has dared to step in and regulate the language of prayer — the sacred dialogue between humankind and God. Such a decision treats prayer agnostically; reduces it to civil nicety.”
The purpose of prayer before government meetings has never been to act merely as a “civil nicety.” Far more than polite well-wishing, the prayers serve to remind our political leaders of our society’s deepest roots, to remind them of the need for humility and for seeking the opinions of others, and – to paraphrase “Rudy” – to remind them that there is a God and they are not him.
While it’s clear – and agreed on by past courts – that these public prayers should neither proselytize and advance one religion nor denigrate another, allowing the current ruling in this case to stand would irreparably neuter all prayers, not to mention put government squarely in the role of legislating the specific content of religious expression, not the place it ought to be.
It’s understandable that some might be offended by these expressions of public faith. But as the Supreme Court ruled in a 1992 case on school prayer, that in itself does not mean the practice is unconstitutional.
“People may take offense at all manner of religious as well as nonreligious messages,” the court said in Lee v. Weisman, “but offense alone does not in every case show a violation.”
Many of our local municipalities have adopted a praiseworthy practice of inviting a wide variety of ministers to offer the invocation at their meetings. Myrtle Beach, North Myrtle Beach and Surfside Beach, for example, all draw from a large and varied list of religious leaders in their communities, encompassing a variety of faiths and denominations. Will these different ministers always use the same terminology in their prayers to the Supreme Being that they recognize? Of course not, but when all of these faiths are accepted and offered the same platform, it does not follow that their specific mentions of Jesus or Allah or the Holy Virgin are an unreasonable promotion of a particular branch of religion by government.
What would be an unreasonable intrusion would be the forced censorship of those prayers to remove all references to a specific deity or belief. Far from being more inclusive, as its supporters suggest, this solution would instead actively promote the beliefs of those who deny all knowledge of a higher power. The brief submitted by our state’s senators summed up the argument well:
“By acting to regulate the content of prayer, courts take sides with those who do not believe in a Divine or Supreme Being, thus violating the Establishment Clause.”
It’s unclear when or even if this case will appear before the Supreme Court, but if it does, the high court’s judges could use the wisdom of Solomon in unraveling it and deciding on all of the issues within. Hopefully somebody’s praying for them.