Friday, February 12, 2010

More Fuss Over Christian Prayer Before Meetings

Earlier this year an article in the Press-Enterprise (Riverside, California) covered a disagreement from Inland, CA, about city council meetings opening with sectarian prayer. There are those in the city who favor allowing such prayer because of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of free exercise of religion and of free speech. Some who argue against it say it is clearly against the Constitution's "separation of church and state."

The "separation" phrase invoked here is generally taken from a letter of Thomas Jefferson, and is thought by some to be a good short-hand description of the First Amendment. But it is not a phrase found in our founding documents. In any case, such quoting of Jefferson must ignore the fact that he seemed to support many Christian-friendly practices of the government when he was President and even signed some official documents with "In the year of our Lord Christ."

The First Amendment does protect free speech and religious freedom. It also prohibits Congress from making a law respecting an establishment of religion. Some feel that the 14th Amendment applies the First Amendment to the states. If so, then states may make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Considering that phrase construction, a law can not be made with respect to an establishment of religion. So even if you think a council meeting may not open with a Christian prayer, and if you think that such a prayer establishes a religion, the state can't make a law that prohibits it. Having said that, it's a reach to think that a person saying any kind of prayer before a meeting has the effect of a law.

Read the whole account here:


Doug Indeap said...

Local governments are political subdivisions of the state, thus the 14th Amendment's constraints on states operate on local governments as well.

History Matters said...

If that is the case, then the Federal government's example of opening various meetings (even Congress) with a prayer should be OK for the states, no?

Jefferson used "separation of church and state" in few occasions - he used "freedom of religion" much more often to describe the goal of the First Amendment. At any level of government, when government has a meeting opening with prayer, but when the same government want to specify what that prayer may or may not say, aren't they violating freedom of religion? Certainly they are coming close to violating that piece of the Amendment than the Establishment piece.

Doug Indeap said...

Actually, yes, pointing to the "unique history" of legislative prayer, the courts have given a pass to legislatures (federal, state, and local) opening their sessions with nonsectarian prayer that does not proselytize or promote any one religion or disparage another. In doing so, they've likely strayed beyond where Madison would have them go.

History Matters said...

Yes, that might have been a problem for Madison, depending on when you had asked him, but no doubt the courts' rulings would have been considered way too restrictive by many other of the founders who helped create the Constitution.