Many government meetings — from small town councils to the top legislative body in the land, U.S. Congress — begin with a prayer.
Sometimes the prayers offend because of their content or simply because they are prayers of any kind.
And when people protest the practice of opening meetings with a prayer, they often contend the First Amendment protects them from religion whenever the government is involved.
Those folks need to take another look at the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”).
This means the U.S. Constitution grants all Americans freedom of religion — not freedom from religion.
So when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Monday that officials in a small town in upstate New York did not violate the Constitution by starting their public meetings with a prayer from a “chaplain of the month,” who was almost always Christian, it was not without controversy.
The high court was divided 5-4, but ultimately came to the conclusion — a reasonable one — that prayers were largely ceremonial. They said the prayers did not unduly favor one religion over another nor did the prayers likely make members of other faiths feel unwelcome.
“Ceremonial prayer,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the majority, “is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond that authority of government to alter or define.”
In writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said the town of Greece’s prayer practices could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share of her government.”
There is no such promise. The Constitution pledges only that the government will not establish a specific religion.
Town officials said that members of all faiths, and atheists, were welcome to give the opening prayer. While only those representing a Christian religion took them up on the offer that does not negate the invitation.
But just because it is constitutional to allow prayer at a public meeting (as long as the opportunity is open to all), does not mean it is particularly wise to have an opening prayer.
Religion is a topic that’s incredibly emotional for some people, whether they are strong believers in one particular religion or whether they don’t want to be touched by religion in any way.
Given that the purpose of government meetings has nothing to do with religion, why stir up a fuss when — as Kennedy pointed out — it is merely ceremonial?
The Walla Walla City Council ended the practice of an opening prayer about 15 years ago so, putting to an end to some concerns expressed. It was a good call.
The focus of city or town council meetings across the nation should be on good government, not the opening prayer.