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Full-Court Press: Prayer in Government Meetings

Paul Dean
Paul Dean
2014 7 May

While most people don’t like to pray, they certainly want the right to pray. Of course there are those who think they have a right not to be offended by the prayers of others. So it becomes a battle of rights rather than commitment to God or principle in the hearts of many. But that doesn’t keep us from praying or seeking to preserve God-given rights in a free society for the good of all whether they see the good or not. We believe God.

So it’s good the Supreme Court has ruled that prayer in government meetings does not violate the U. S. Constitution. Here’s the story: two women in Greece, New York took issue with the fact their town council meetings were opened with Christian prayer. They contended that Christian prayer was a violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment though they had no objection to non-sectarian prayer. In one sense, the Court ruled that prayer should be sectarian or it really isn’t prayer. Good call.

The language from the majority opinion is both critical and instructive:

To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact. Respondents’ contrary arguments are unpersuasive. It is doubtful that consensus could be reached as to what qualifies as a generic or nonsectarian prayer. It would also be unwise to conclude that only those religious words acceptable to the majority are permissible, for the First Amendment is not a majority rule and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech.

Albert Mohler notes the Court is saying that government has no right to declare the only god welcome in the public arena is a generic god. Christians obviously agree; there is no such thing as a generic god to whom all may pray; there is no God but God.

Of course, the Court was divided and Justice Elena Kagan offered this alarming comment: “When citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another.” Here civil religion is bared for all to see. It’s the kind of thing governments appreciate as a means of keeping the masses happy, docile, controlled, and committed to their agenda. It’s a kind of public deism that keeps the peace but certainly has no place in the Christian framework. We can’t approach the government, or anyone else for that matter, as Americans only; we are who we are, faith included. And if we leave our faith at the door then we don’t have much of a faith. As a Christian, if you ask me to pray at a public meeting whether town council or a football game, you should know what you’re going to get: a sincere prayer to the true God in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. If you don’t like that – don’t ask me to pray.

Now, there are freedom loving individuals who have questioned the ruling. Scott Lazarowitz is one of them. He asks:

Well, okay, Justice Kennedy and the conservatives, but what if someone presenting a particular case before an open local government hearing wants to say his own prayer out loud but he happens to worship “the devil” or some other entity whose worship many people may find offensive? What if it makes the rest of the group in attendance uncomfortable? Should he not be allowed to do so? Or are you saying that if the majority of the group there are Christians only they can read their prayers?

Mohler is helpful here and points us to the majority opinion again: “Congress continues to permit its appointed and visiting chaplains to express themselves in a religious idiom. It acknowledges our growing diversity not by proscribing sectarian content but by welcoming ministers of many creeds.” And Mohler rightly elaborates:

This is a message that Christians in America must affirm without reservation. Religious liberty for Christians means religious liberty — full religious liberty — for all citizens. We must not only concede this point, we must make this point. We cannot be constitutionally offended when Buddhists pray at the opening of Congress as Buddhists, when Muslims open sessions of the town council meeting with Muslim prayers, or even when the rabbi prays in accordance with his Jewish faith.

Enough said.

But Lazarowitz explains his concern about pronouncements from conservative Christians:

The emphasis in this case was that of the Christian prayers being the center of controversy. But, on a related note, also this week the blowhard Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore just recently asserted that what the writers of the First Amendment meant by “religion” was Christianity. And therefore the First Amendment really only protects Christians‘ right to freedom of religion, based on the early Americans’ references to “God” as the “Creator.” And he went on to say, “Buddha didn’t create us, Muhammad didn’t create us. It’s the God of the Holy Scriptures. They didn’t bring a Qur’an over on the pilgrim ship Mayflower. Let’s get real, let’s go back and learn our history, let’s stop playing games.”

Of course, that’s not what the Court said.

But no Christian should affirm Judge Moore’s words. Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ is the only way of salvation and we proclaim Him. However, the church and America are two separate things. We don’t force Christianity on others through the state and we affirm religious freedom for all. Such a concept flows from the realities that all men are created in God’s image, are free agents, and should not be coerced or forcibly enslaved. We may not violate a man’s liberty of conscience before God. We fully expect a Muslim to pray to his god and affirm his right to do so in a free and civil society though we know he is praying to a god of his imagination: an idol. And that’s why we try to win him to Christ, not by force, but by the gospel.

Okay then. But why should we pray at government assemblies anyway Lazarowitz wants to know? Again, we can go back to Mohler: “We must recognize that one of the primary purposes of prayer before a government assembly is to remind all present that government, though important, is not ultimate.” There is no King but King Jesus.

So, this is good. But there’s some bad too. From the Court: “In rejecting the suggestion that legislative prayer must be nonsectarian, the Court does not imply that no constraints remain on its content.” That’s not only bad, it’s ugly. They’re saying government reserves the right to limit or alter the content of prayer should they deem it necessary. That’s as troubling as it is wrong. Now what? We Christians simply need to keep pressing the gospel in the area of public policy. The day we cease to do that will be the day the Court rules sectarian prayer out of order. Genuine liberty and justice for all cannot be sustained apart from the influence of a Christian worldview.

So, don’t stop believing – and – don’t stop pressing – full Court.

Check out Dr. Dean’s audio news and worldview commentaries, The Dean’s List as well as his new e-book “Naked and Unashamed: Liberating Sex from Cultural Captivity”. You can also follow him on Twitter: @pauldeanjr.