Thursday, May 29, 2014

217. Prayer should be personal, not public

Almost immediately after the Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway that the beginning legislative sessions with a prayer do not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment Commissioner Tom Williams proposed that commissioner meetings open with a prayer.

At first, any hopes of making it a political issue in an election year was quickly squashed when the other commissioners swiftly agreed.

Nonetheless, the more Williams spoke, the more I grew concerned at his lack of perspective and insight.

In discussing the issue, Williams asked, “Why would anyone object to having an opening prayer?” followed by the curious statement, “It just reminds us that Lorain County prospers.”

Dismissing the seemingly incongruent connection between the two statements, Williams seems to miss the whole point to the case and the intricate legal connection to the First Amendment.  Even the Supreme Court Justices, who voted along political lines, could not agree in their opinions as reported by The Volokh Conspiracies legal blog:

“Justice Kennedy wrote for the Court, joined by the Chief Justice and Justice Alito in full and Justices Scalia and Thomas in part.  Scalia and Thomas refused to join Part II-B of Kennedy’s opinion, which concluded that a “fact-intensive” inquiry of the specific practice at issue in this case did not unconstitutionally coerce individuals to engage in religious observance. Justice Alito wrote a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Scalia. Justice Thomas wrote an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, joined by Justice Scalia in part. On the other side, Justice Breyer wrote a dissenting opinion for himself, and Justice Kagan wrote a dissent joined by Justices Breyer, Ginsburg, and Sotomayor.”

But to answer Williams’ question, there are a couple of reasons why people would object to an opening prayer.

The first reason is the pure belief of the separation of church and state. Though exceptions are continuously made in the legal community, the premise is that religion should be a personal endeavor, not a state proclamation or endorsement. The government shall not favor or proselytize one belief over another. It is a crucial and significant part of our American diversity. Believing in one god, several gods, no gods—or the flying spaghetti monster—is a right specifically granted to each American.

The second reason is in regards to the requirement of religious diversity in the opening prayer. Who decides which clergy is invited to offer a prayer? Will Muslims, Buddhists, Jews and Mormons and Hindus be invited?

Williams proclaimed, “We have different beliefs, but it comes down to believing in a God.”

What about those of us who do not believe in a god? What about Atheists, Agnostics and Humanists? I regret to inform Mr. Williams, but no identifiable belief (i.e. Agnostics, Humanists, etc.) is the fastest growing segment of the United States, numbering between 15-20 percent of the population. Although perhaps not considered a prayer, it offers the same promotion of humanistic values and kindness that religion is supposed to offer.

Wikipedia calls religion “a set of variously organized beliefs about the relationship between natural and supernatural aspects of reality, and the role of humans in this relationship.” Meeting that definition, I look forward to being invited to offer a Humanist opening as he promises to “show respect to all religions.”

But it would not be much of a story if Williams only stopped there.

Williams offered a detailed account of what brought him to his belief when challenged by a local editor who also suggested a motive of political opportunity.

While sympathetic to Williams’ family ordeal years ago, I was disturbed at his commitment to the “power of prayer.”

How many other families were with Williams at the hospital and made the same appeal to their god for their children? I understand that people look for and find god in moments of personal crisis and vulnerability as the only possible explanation—for both miraculous and tragic outcomes. But the reality is, an all-knowing, all powerful God could easily make this world far more kind and just—surely millions have prayed for that.

If people want to believe that their god really sits around and decides who wins lotteries and scores touchdowns at the expense of starving and sick children, then for them I pray for rational thought—or a kinder god.

I do not want to, or in any way enjoy, pointing out the contradictions, hypocrisy or irrational thought behind religious belief.  However, if an elected official, especially someone I voted for, is going to make the issue public—then I am afforded every right, even perhaps an obligation, as a constituent and former president of a Freethought group, to comment on the issue.

I do hope that Williams’ call to do God’s work is extended to help those in need—to reject greed, selfishness and cruelty.  And I look forward to his support of government measures aimed at helping the poor and those who need life’s essentials, such as healthcare and sustainable wages.

We live in a time when we need elected officials to understand sociology, economics, law and science—not in the power of religious rhetoric. There are people suffering and dying and until you can convince me that prayer works for them as well, I suggest that public time is better spent looking for more practical solutions. Prayer belongs in church or one’s personal time and not in government—it is the genius behind the principle of the separation of church and state.

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