The U.S. Supreme Court is again being asked to decide the prayer line – what prayers at a public meeting are constitutional and which ones are not.
The high court may have thought the issue was decided in 2014 when it ruled in favor of prayer at the start of local council meetings, declaring in a New York case that prayers are in line with long national traditions. The content of the prayers is not significant as long as the prayers do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said.
The 5-4 ruling alone should have been a harbinger that questions would remain. Now comes a case from North Carolina in which the Rowan County Board of Commissioners is asking the justices to overturn a decision by the Richmond,Va.-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In July, the 4th Circuit judges ruled 10-5 that while prayer itself is not unconstitutional, the commissioners’ practice of leading the prayers themselves and inviting the audience to join, always in the Christian faith, violated the First Amendment by establishing Christianity as a preferred religion.
South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson and a coalition of 22 states have joined in the case by urging the Supreme Court to protect the practice of lawmaker-led prayer at public meetings.
“Our founding fathers strongly supported legislative prayer by public bodies and deeply believed in divine guidance to support these bodies. Nothing in the Constitution prevents a respectful prayer led by a lawmaker for help in making the right decision,” Wilson said. “The last place the right of free expression of our faith should be excluded is where the laws of a free people are made.”
The coalition argues lawmaker-led prayer is woven into the fabric of American society. The practice also is fully consistent with the Constitution and our nation’s long tradition of non-coercive expressions of faith in the public sector, Wilson and others say.
The Richmond court’s ruling is at odds with the 6th Circuit in Cincinnati, which found in September that such prayers are constitutional in a case from Michigan.
The division in the courts over the prayer issue reflects the divide there is among the populace.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of prayer at the beginning of government meetings was the correct one. But how far can the courts go in deciding how those prayers can be conducted?
Any decision will not be universally accepted, since the battle cuts to the root of religious freedom in this country.
As much as so many of our founding fathers viewed religion in the context of Christianity, they were all too familiar with the Old World persecution that can come when one religion is mandated and others are rejected.
The United States is a melting pot of peoples and religions. Public officials are elected to represent all their constituents, whether they be Christian, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic, atheist or other. If a public official’s Christian prayer is acceptable at a meeting, would a future member's prayer unique to another religion being equally as acceptable?
Yet how can a court say a prayer in any form is not acceptable? Prayer before a meeting should not be prohibited, but a prayer in any setting of religious diversity should be respectful of the beliefs and practices of others.
The First Amendment forbids creation of any law prohibiting freedom of religion. The nation's high court must decide how to interpret that basic guarantee.
On one hand, there should be no prohibition on prayer or religious practice, period, which even calls in to question why the courts are involved. On the other, the First Amendment forbids government from sanctioning any religion, which means it cannot show favoritism to one religion over another.
As controversial as another decision from the top of the judicial mountain will be, it is needed.