To Pray or Not to Pray
By Rev. Dr. William C. Myers and Scott Blair | Feb. 9, 2019
Note to readers: The Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners last month approved a motion to open its regular meetings with an invocation. (You can find the resolution in its entirety by searching "invocation” at www.grandtraverse.org.) Here, Scott and Bill respond to the issue.
There should not be prayer at county board of commissioners meetings. This doesn’t mean religion is banned from the room. We elect whole people; if religion is part of what makes up a candidate, it is part of what makes up the commissioner, and he/she is free to express it. Commissioners may wear a yarmulke or carry a Bible. They may draw from religious principles when making decisions. However, there is a line the religious have no right to cross: Religious practices should not be incorporated into our public meetings. A lead prayer, fixed into the agenda, is a government prayer, not individual expression.
Commitment to pluralism is essential for a functional community. This means we willfully carve out a neutral space for public decision-making, one where everyone is granted access, and where no element of the community may impose its religiosity. Any honest, fair-minded person can understand and accept that. To reject pluralism is to always be subject to whichever group has the upper hand.
The purported purpose of the prayers is to “lend gravity to the proceedings.” But humankind is notoriously non-aligned on religion. You cannot impart gravity or establish a sense of common purpose by alienating attendees.
So why did four commissioners vote for the invocation policy, despite overwhelming expressed public opposition? I have to assume that they don’t care about pluralism, that they simply want to prevail. They imposed the prayer as a statement, a flag planted in a common space in an attempt to claim it for their group. They are declaring that this a God-worshiping community.
The “opt out” option doesn’t cut it. The proceedings are still painted with the religiosity of others. Those who leave, or visibly don’t participate, are identifying themselves and may then be subject to prejudice in matters they might have before the board. People face choosing between honoring their own beliefs or feigning participation.
Prayer in the meeting room is unnecessary and divisive; it is wrong to impose it in the very place that should remain blind to people’s religious affiliations.
Scott champions pluralism — just not in matters of faith. How do we promote pluralism by denying board members their constitutional right? A majority of the board voted to open its regular meetings with prayer. The Supreme Court says the action is legal. The issue is only divisive if we make it so. If we truly embrace a spirit of pluralism, we should welcome prayer to open our governmental meetings. One meeting could feature a Christian prayer; another a Jewish prayer; another an Islamic prayer. Other meetings could feature pagan prayers, Buddhist prayers, or Hindu prayers. Our non-theist friends could offer a statement on gratitude, justice, wisdom, or compassion — whatever human virtues they want to affirm. Such a practice would prepare board members for the consequential matters of their meetings and affirm the religious pluralism of our community. The essence of Scott’s argument is that public prayer offends his religious sensibilities. Scott, sitting respectfully while someone prays is not the same as praying. However, the opportunity might help those present learn to appreciate the religious diversity of our community.
To pray or not to pray? That is the question the Grand Traverse County Commissioners considered in January. The divisiveness of the issue is reflected in the 4–3 vote and the tenor of many of the comments posted in response on social media. The negativity and mean-spirited nature of these comments are reflective of the social and political discourse of our day.
The commissioners made the right decision, and I’m grateful they had the courage to do so. Some will cry “separation of church and state!” However, that political philosophy has no legal standing. The legal measure is the establishment clause of our Constitution. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”
The establishment clause of our Constitution preserves our unalienable right to live, work, and play as a person of faith in all facets of life, even the political arena. In this case, the key is the second clause: “prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .” In the same way someone can’t be made to worship or pray in public, the right to do so must be protected.
Hearing someone pray is not the same as praying. No one’s rights are violated by the board’s decision to open their meetings with prayer. As cited in The Ticker (a local online sister to Northern Express), “The U.S. Supreme Court has held that prayer is permitted in an official setting of legislative bodies, such as county commissions, provided invocations do not ‘denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion." If a majority of the commissioners desire to open their meetings with prayer, it is their right to do so.
Rather than fighting over the question “to pray or not to pray,” maybe the better question to ask is this: How can this new invocation policy be used to further the common good? Finding even more ways to reflect and respect the diversity in our community, including people of all faiths, is a good place to start.
Bill ignores the distinction between individuals and government. Religious speech and free exercise are rights that belong to citizens. People may practice religion and pray anywhere and everywhere. But when government does it, when it is imbedded into public meeting agendas, it becomes “establishment” in the First Amendment sense. Can we please respect one another enough to acknowledge that?
Some believers are so accustomed to the privilege they have enjoyed for centuries that they are comfortable imposing religion on our common institutions as though it were a divine entitlement. It is perfectly easy to keep our government neutral and respectful to all, but Bill and the four prayer-voting commissioners will not recognize that simple, fair principle. They are not content with freedom to be religious in our society; they must make our society religious.
While they disagree on whether prayer is appropriate when incorporated into our common public institutions, Bill and Scott agree all citizens must remain free to publicly practice their faith, express and debate their religious beliefs, and pray (or not).