Ceremonial prayer

As an old-timey Baptist, I don’t put much stock in it.

By Bill Leonard

“Ceremonial prayer” — that’s what Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy called the rite that the high court approved by a 5-4 vote in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, a ruling that allowed the town to continue its practice of opening local board meetings with prayers by a “minister of the month,” most of whom are Christian.

Kennedy wrote: “Ceremonial prayer 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 the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs. The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”

Justice Kennedy may be well-versed in the nature of constitutional law, but his judicial opinion reflects limited awareness of the nature of prayer. As an old-timey Baptist I don’t put much stock in “ceremonial” prayer. There may be government-centered ceremonies where the deity is addressed in various forms, but let’s not stoop to calling it prayer. Prayer is talking to God, not to the Emperor, the President, the Congress, political parties, county commissioners or people gathered for hearings about potholes, zoning or sanitation. They may all need prayer, but certainly not the ceremonial kind.

At its depth, prayer is anything but ceremonial; it burns in the soul, dances in the feet, erupts from the gut, cries out against injustice and exposes the struggles of the heart. But the five supporting justices didn’t see it that way. Rather, Justice Kennedy insisted, “The inclusion of a brief, ceremonial prayer as part of a larger exercise in civic recognition suggests that its purpose and effect are to acknowledge religious leaders and the institutions they represent rather than to exclude or coerce nonbelievers.”

No, no, Mr. Justice. Government use of prayer to tout privileged “religious leaders” or their “institutions” trivializes faith’s most wondrous connection: a confrontation with the Divine. In fact, this prayer case and others like it point to a great failure of many government officials and religious leaders alike. In protecting a deity-specific, often majoritarian Christian approach to state-based prayer, we sacrifice robust spirituality for “ceremonial” rhetoric, imposed on a governmentally “mixed multitude” of persons representing various religious traditions or none at all. As the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty noted in its friend-of-the-court, or amicus, brief supporting the plaintiffs, “The First Amendment protects a person’s right to join a congregation that fits his or her beliefs and traditions, and not to join a government-created congregation that does not.”

In challenging the Greece township approach, the BJC declared: “The Town’s practice of beginning a participatory local government meeting with a prayer service violates the Establishment Clause because it improperly suffuses government with religion, and impermissibly compromises the rights of conscience of citizen participants. … When municipalities unite town meeting with communal worship, the dissenting citizen is put on the horns of a dilemma: forfeit access to the most accessible and participatory level of government, or compromise one’s conscience by offering an insincere prayer.

“But this dilemma is not limited to non-Christians; many Christians believe, as amicus does, that their freedom of conscience is violated when they are pressured to participate in government prayer, because such acts of worship should only be performed voluntarily as dictated by conscience. … By opening its town meetings with a prayer in which the citizenry is asked to join the government officials in praying to God (and often to Christ), the Town violates the freedom of conscience of each attendee who considers a town meeting to be neither the time nor place for communal prayer, or who has theological differences with the government-deputized prayer-leader.”

The justices did set boundaries, however, warning that prayers denigrating “nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation or preach conversion,” were unacceptable. Kennedy noted that since “a pattern” of derogatory prayers would be difficult to prove, no “constitutional violation” would likely occur.

Don’t bet on it. What government official will judge when one person’s prayerful “conviction” becomes another’s “damnation?”

Perhaps the court’s Roman Catholic majority should consider the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s warning in remarks at Liberty University: “The separation of church and state can sometimes be frustrating for women and men of religious faith. They may be tempted to misuse government in order to impose a value which they cannot persuade others to accept. But once we succumb to that temptation, we step onto a slippery slope where everyone’s freedom is at risk.”

The Book of Common Prayer entreats, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against thee in word, thought, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.” That’s a great prayer for all of us, Supreme Court Justices included. Amen.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.