With all due respect to my blogging colleague, Jonathan Waits and his blog post, the US Supreme Court got the decision wrong about the town of Greece, NY and their ceremonial prayers.
How prayers are handled in government sponsored settings is a forever issue. While I was not truly aware of the controversy until the 1960s Supreme Court cases that excluded required opening religious exercises, Bible reading, and prayer from each morning in public schools, that was now a half century ago.
I wrote a blog on this subject 18 months ago—50 Years of Confusion About School Prayer. This post talks about my personal presence in or near two of the three Supreme Court cases that were deliberated and decided on in 1962 and 1963.
More About My Journey
Having grown up primarily in the Baltimore, MD I was significantly influenced by the Washington, DC mindset—particularly Baptist perspectives on the separation of church and state. My father was a Baptist minister and in personal conversations with him I learned a deep respect for various issues of religious liberty.
People I came to know growing up were deeply involved in religious liberty issues. This included our close friend Gene Puckett who was for a while the Executive Director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. I am old enough to remember when it was called Protestants and Other Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
I met on several occasions Emmanuel Carlson who was executive director from 1954-1971 of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs [now Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty] from 1954-1971. I regularly read the Report from the Capital.
Baltimore—then later Philadelphia—was a very diverse racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and religious place to grow up. My schools were integrated from our elementary school forward. A basic respect for other cultures and belief systems came natural to me, although each new experience brought new learning and challenges.
One challenge was when as president of the Bible Club my senior year of high school just north of Philadelphia, PA I was asked to give voice to an invocation for 500 people when the National Association of Student Councils [NASC] met our my high school. Yes, my high school was a government school. The Bible Club was a voluntary group that met after school hours in the school facilities. The NASC is not a government organization. It was simply meeting in a government facility.
I was instructed that I had to write out my prayer and have it approved by our student council advisor/teacher. She said I could not pray “in Jesus name”. I was upset. I had to pray about that. I talked about it with my father. I wrote the prayer. It was approved. I spoke the prayer out of Christian commitment and with full respect for the various religious convictions represented in the room.
Back to SCOTUS
None of this means I am an expert on Supreme Court decisions and constitutional interpretations of the Establishment Cause. I will leave that dry subject to others.
What it does mean is that I live with a conviction that we ought to work hard for the separation of church and state and for religious liberty for all faiths if we are going to be a truly free nation. That is both my citizenship position and my Christian position. Therefore, I believe religious liberty for all faiths means we will seek a higher ground of faith that does not require or ask for the permission of government to express our faith through prayer.
Government-sponsored or endorsed ceremonial prayers are often less than genuine prayers. They are just that—ceremony. They call for the blessing of God on what at worse could become a form of theocracy akin to various expressions of dominion theology.
I generally affirm the principle of community standards. However, that too often assumes that community standards are static rather than dynamic. Prayer is good. Whose prayer may be debatable when a community context transitions demographically.
I hope—and yes I pray—the officials of the town of Greece, NY pray regularly as individuals and in their faith communities that God will give them spiritual wisdom individually and collectively as they seek to make wise decisions in their political setting.
As for ceremonial public prayers connected with their gatherings, let’s forgo the inauthentic and perfunctory nature that too often accompany such ceremony and get on with loving the people whom God created. Let us wisely seeking higher ground in our governance deliberations and decisions.