Tuesday, March 4, 2008

How Deep Does the First Amendment Reach?

There was recently an article in the Times Herald of Port Huron, Michigan, called "Prayer issue heats up - Open prayer is rare for area public meetings." It outlined an issue that has arisen because of the way opening prayers have been handled at city council meetings.

The article also described a similar debate in North Carolina. Here is part of that story:

In North Carolina, the "Christian-centered" group the Alliance Defense Fund is acting as legal counsel for the county and Americans United for Separation of Church and State is representing plaintiffs, citizens who see prayer at public meetings as a violation of church and state separation.

Alex Luchenitser, senior litigation counsel for Americans United, said the Alliance Defense Fund supplied officials in Forsyth County, N.C., with the wording for their ordinance outlining public prayer.

Luchenitser said it's "identical" to the one Port Huron city officials adopted on Monday. Mayor Brian Moeller got wording for the ordinance, which requires the person leading the prayer to be from an established religious organization as listed in the phone book, from the ADF.

"This policy will have the result of predominately Christian prayers mentioning Jesus at the beginning of the meeting which is not permitted by the Constitution and is a violation of church and state," Luchenitser said. "It's possible that this issue might go before the Supreme Court.

The text that appears in blue above is a problem for me. Whether or not prayers mentioning Jesus are predominant at the meetings is certainly something the council could (or even should) debate as a matter of appropriateness and balance. However, the Constitution in no way addresses this. The First Amendment poses a restriction on Congress so it can't establish a national religion and says citizens have a right to free worship.

The Constitution addressed powers given to the Federal Government and said that all other powers not named in the Constitution are left to the states. To think the Founders would have even considered restricting what a city group does is not based on any historical evidence, and is in fact very thoroughly refuted by the evidence that exists.

Why do we as a culture seem to think that we need to solve these problems by going to court and (mis-) quoting the Constitution? The whole idea behind the founding of the U.S. Government was to keep power from becoming too centralized. Certainly the establishment clause is not meant to limit a city council. And the free exercise clause addresses that fact that citizens have a right to worship freely; hearing a prayer from any other religion at a council meeting does not limit my freedom to worship.

In fact, to say that the leader can not pray the way he/she wishes could be considered an un-Constitutional restriction of an individual's rights, which the First Amendment does address. Such a prayer is not (in my opinion) a "worship event" - it is just a call for guidance, prayed in a manner most comfortable to the person praying. I'm a Christian, but if I hear a prayer from another religion to God asking for guidance, I am all for it. Godly guidance is good! Many city councils could probably use more of that.

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