May we pray - or not?
BY MIKE JONES Associate Editor
Sunday, September 02, 2012
9/02/12 at 3:18 AM
If there was any worry, City Hall was not struck by lightning Thursday when the invocation for the Tulsa City Council meeting was given by an atheist.
Which begs the question: Why is an invocation or prayer needed at the City Council anyway?
Answer No. 1: Because that's the way it's always been done.
Answer No. 2: Because the council needs all the help it can get.
Answer No. 3: Because God-fearing folks around these parts want it that way.
Other than possibly No. 2, all are insufficient answers.
The subject does, however, bring up another discussion of the First Amendment. Last Sunday it was free speech. This Sunday it is freedom of religion.
The reaction to the news story was, no surprise, overwhelming. As of Friday, there were more than 500 comments posted on the story on the Tulsa World's Web site.
The responses seemed to fall into roughly three camps: those who think a prayer ought to be delivered before all public events; those who believe that such prayers violate the First Amendment, and those who don't care one way or another.
The odd thing about the pray-at-all times crowd is that it's not that they want simply prayer (which takes in a lot of ground) but they want a particular prayer, mostly a Christian one.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1983 on the question of prayer before legislative sessions in Marsh v. Chambers. The court said that such prayer is "deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country" and, therefore, is not unconstitutional.
I have no problem with that. I do, however, find it somewhat disturbing that we need to invoke such power to get our elected officials to do the right thing. Congress opens its sessions with prayer and nothing much has changed over the last 12 or so years. Yes, that's simplistic thinking, but we haven't the space here to dive into a full religious debate.
Religious freedom, I believe, is the most misunderstood and misinterpreted portion of the First Amendment (which also includes freedom of speech, the press, petition and assembly).
One argument goes something like this: This country was founded on Christian principles. We have moved away from that by banning prayer in schools and in public. We want to get back to what our Founding Fathers wanted.
First, yes, the Pilgrims fled to the New World to get away from religious persecution. Simply put, they didn't like anyone (specifically, the king of England) telling them what church they could belong to and how they could worship.
When the Founders were composing the U.S. Constitution in 1787-88, they remembered the plight of those persecuted for their religious beliefs and wanted to keep that from happening in this new country.
Therefore, the freedom of religion passage was written into the First Amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ...").
I, along with others, believe that this means freedom from religion as much as freedom of religion. That means that you or I can practice any religion we want or none at all.
Banning prayer from public schools is a myth, but one often repeated by those who are easily outraged. If pressed, most people who want prayer "returned" to schools would admit that not just any prayer will do. What they want is a Christian prayer.
Former U.S. Rep. Ernest Istook routinely proposed a bill at the beginning of each session of Congress as long as he served that offered up a specific prayer for schools. It was, of course, a Christian prayer.
That is what the Founders were protecting us from. An "establishment of religion."
Students can pray in school. Teachers can pray in school. They just can't force another student or teacher to say the same prayer. Anyone can pray anywhere they wish. They just can't expect everyone to go along with them.
Does everyone reciting the same prayer aloud make it a better prayer? No. But it certainly can make people uncomfortable. Should a Jew, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi or atheist be forced to say a Christian prayer? Should they be publicly shamed when they don't?
Prayer ought to be a very personal thing. I'll stick with Matthew 6: 5-6:
And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.
But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
The Constitution was not written for Christians or Christianity. It was written to protect both, as well as those who choose to follow any other religion or none at all.
As far as the invocation at City Hall. If they simply must have one, I have no problem.
But the Founders guaranteed that no one can tell me what prayer to pray or if I have to pray at all.
When someone does, there will be thunder and lightning.
Original Print Headline: May we pray?
Mike Jones, 918-581-8332