By Bob Allen
The Southern Baptist Convention’s top expert on religious-liberty concerns says the U.S. Supreme Court should uphold a New York town’s practice of opening its city council meetings with sectarian prayer.
“A prayer, by definition, isn’t a speech made to a public audience but is instead a petition made to a higher Being,” Russell Moore, head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said in an Oct 15 commentary on the Huffington Post. “For the government to censor such prayers is to turn the government into a theological referee, and would, in fact, establish a state religion: a state religion of generic American civil religious mush that assumes all religions are ultimately the same anyway.”
Moore’s agency has filed a friend-of-the-court brief in a case scheduled for argument Nov. 6, asking the Supreme Court to overturn a lower court’s decision that the town of Greece, N.Y., violated the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion by allowing private citizens to open council meetings with prayers typically ending with the words “in Jesus’ name.”
The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May 2012 that because the prayers were overwhelmingly led by Christians, the practice gave the appearance that the town was endorsing one religion over others.
“Where the overwhelming predominance of prayers offered are associated, often in an explicitly sectarian way, with a particular creed, and where the town takes no steps to avoid the identification, but rather conveys the impression that town officials themselves identify with the sectarian prayers and that residents in attendance are expected to participate in them, a reasonable objective observer would perceive such an affiliation,” the appellate court decided.
Moore argued, however, that removing the “sectarian” nature of such prayers reduces them to “public service announcements followed by ‘Amen.’”
“These prayers are not an establishment of religion,” Moore said. “The clergyperson offering the invocation isn’t an extension of the government. His or her prayers aren’t state-written or state-approved.”
The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, a church-state watchdog representing 15 national and regional Baptist bodies including the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that there is no such thing as ceremonial prayer.
“By opening a local government meeting with an exercise of religious devotion, a political assembly is transformed into a religious congregation,” said BJC General Counsel Hollyn Hollman. “It is because of — not in spite of — the importance of prayer and religion that we object to this government assumption of religious functions.”
The BJC, which until 1994 included the Southern Baptist Convention, advocates a moment of silence in lieu of spoken prayer.
“Moments of silence, in which citizens may choose to pray (or not pray) according to the dictates of their own consciences, are an appropriate way to solemnize the important work of government while respecting the beliefs of all citizens,” BJC Staff Counsel Nan Futrell wrote in the September 2013 issue of Report from the Capital. “It is not the business of government to conduct religious worship or advance religion. Instead, this is our job — one that history counsels is best left to the faithful.”
Moore, however, said that spoken prayers have a place in the public square.
“Such invocations serve to remind us that we are more than extensions of the state,” he wrote. “Our consciences are accountable to a higher tribunal than any government. It’s that sense of conscience and human integrity that has led this country to support minority rights, respect for opposing viewpoints, and a limit on the power of government.”
The case could clear up confusion about “legislative prayer,” an American tradition of solemnizing public meetings with prayer that dates back to the first Continental Congress in 1774. The high court has ruled that the practice can be constitutional, but such prayers must not have the effect of endorsing or advancing a particular faith.
In 2011, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down a practice similar to that of the town of Greece by the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina, and the Supreme Court rejected the county’s appeal.