Sunday, August 1, 2010

Another Flap Over Prayer Before Meetings

Mayor Linda Thompson of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, has been praying with her staff at the start of meetings. An "unidentified employee" has complained, and the American Civil Liberties Union responded with a letter to the mayor instructing her to stop. The reason, of course, is the so-called "separation of church and state" that has driven so many cases of the ACLU and similar groups.

That phrase is supposed to represent the First Amendment. However, the actual complete text of the religion clauses of that Amendment is:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Nothing in there about not asking staff members to join in voluntary prayer. The mayor has made it clear from the start of this regular practice that no one is compelled to participate. They may simply abstain or may leave the room temporarily.

As a prelude to all this discussion, it might be good to notice that the First Congress, who wrote and ratified the First Amendment, opened their first meeting with a prayer. Right after they ratified the Amendment, they also petitioned our first President to declare a national day of prayer and fasting. And prayers and all sorts of official occasions were commonly invoked by those folks.

The Founders did not intend to prevent an official from leading his/her staff in prayer. They wanted to prevent the establishment of a centralized government that people would be forced by law to support. This is clear from reading the history of our country and the debates leading up to the Constitution's ratification. And remember that they were only clarifying what the Constitution could not do. The Constitution gave the government no power to establish a religion, and stated that the government had only those powers specifically given to it.

Does the mayor's prayer establish an official religion for the nation? The state of Pennsylvania? Or even the city of Harrisburg? Are people compelled by law to worship? Hardly. One could feel the mayor's habit is not considerate of members of the staff who are not comfortable with such things, or one could worry that a member might feel uncomfortable bowing out. But neither of those comforts or feelings are a Constitutional matter. If she is being inconsiderate, which I am not claiming, she could be asked about it. The voters could remove her if they wished.

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