For as long as anyone can remember, every time a local city council or the school board or county government holds a public meeting in Pickens County, officials have begun with a prayer.
But according to recent media stories, some citizens across the nation are taking issue with public prayers before meetings. There are at least five lawsuits around the country challenging pre-meeting prayers; one in California and New York (no surprise in those states), but also in Missouri and our neighboring Tennessee and Florida.
When it comes to the expression of religion through prayer, we don’t envy lawmakers who are asked to decide on the constitutionality of such matters.
As with any issue there are supporters and opponents, both with reasonable arguments. Supporters of the pre-meeting prayers say it’s a long-standing tradition that reaches back to our nation’s founders. They also point out that prayer is not mandatory for those who choose not to participate. But opponents say the prayers make them feel uncomfortable and cite the established principle of separation of church and state as reasons to abandon the practice.
Pre-meeting prayer advocates say that in addition to spiritual benefits, vocalized prayers remind public officials to do good work and set a reverent tone for communities. Opponents say the mix of politics and religion is inappropriate – you don’t go to church for a discussion of the city budget so why expect the reverse at the council meetings.
Not pertinent to the legal issues, it’s interesting to note that the Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 6:5-6) advises praying in private, rather than making a public display.
Ultimately, we recommend doing what’s right for the community where the prayers take place, not following a national decision. Let’s face it, views on the lawsuits in New York and California are going to be drastically different than in Tennessee. What works for one area may not be appropriate in others and in Pickens County there is a clearly a longstanding tradition of Christian prayer that, to date, has not been met with any complaints.
In fairness there may be some who are uncomfortable that aren’t ever going to speak out -- criticizing prayers in Pickens County isn’t going to sit well with the vast majority of the populace.
This is a case where the federal courts need to recognize the diversity in the nation and leave it up to each community to decide what works for their citizens. One community cited in an Associated Press story voted by straw poll ballot to proceed with pre-meeting prayers in the face of threatened lawsuit with the sentiment being that if they have to fork over tax dollars later to defend the practice, it’s money well spent.
Even though Pickens County is made up of an overwhelming number of Christians, if we pray at our public meetings, we encourage all boards and bodies to be inclusive of others’ rights to religious freedom of expression and not favor one religion over another. It’s most unlikely a Hindu or Buddhist will come forward for equal time but under the large label of Christians, we’d hope that all churches here are offered chances to pray in the style they use at their worship services. And, should another religion show up, the mixing of faiths went over well at a nationally televised program held to offer comfort following the Connecticut school shooting.
Like the America of Washington’s time, Pickens County is primarily a “Christian” nation, but perhaps there is no greater strength of character than being accepting of others’ religious rights as our Founding Fathers most clearly were.
So as we continue our prayers at official meetings our officials should always feel free to seek the guidance of a higher power, and may we be tolerant of different views, not just to keep lawsuits at bay but in the spirit of what our country was founded on.