Some public bodies, from city councils to school boards, continue to invite judicial scrutiny of their adherence to the establishment clause in the Constitution. They show an overriding preference for a religion – you can guess which one it is – to the exclusion of all other faiths, or no faith at all.
The Richmond-based 4th Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled on the latest dispute, this time in a case involving the opening prayers of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners in North Carolina. The Charlotte-area community is home to nearly 140,000 people.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote the decision. A majority of the judges agreed the commissioners’ prayer practices were “unconstitutionally coercive.” There was an overwhelming preference for Christianity. Only commissioners were allowed to give the prayer that began meetings. They “veered from time to time into overt proselytization.”
This is unacceptable in a country that purports to welcome many faiths. It’s what separates the United States from nations that harass – and even execute – members of religious minorities.
Over the 5½ years in which video recordings of board meetings were available, 97 percent of the board’s prayers mentioned “Jesus,” “Christ,” or the “Savior,” Wilkinson wrote.
“No religion other than Christianity was represented.”
There’s a reason the First Amendment begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The idea was to allow multiple faiths to practice freely, but not to favor one over another. It’s among the tenets that make America a beacon for so many people worldwide.
Maybe you, like me, have attended your share of public meetings here. Council or board members frequently give opening invocations, strongly Christian.
Rarely have I’ve heard one that was distinctly Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Shinto, etc. Can you imagine the uproar that would ensue if a board member exhorted citizens to adopt one of those faiths?
I understand the comity and civility these invocations can inspire among elected officials and residents alike. We certainly can use such appeals in our oft-fractured political climate.
You would think, however, that discussions on school construction, interstate land use, tattoo permit fees and other mundane issues could easily survive without opening prayers. But I digress.
The court ruling released Friday suggested steps that public bodies could take to follow the establishment clause. It also cited the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway as a guide.
In that case from New York, most ministers giving sectarian prayers at town board meetings were Christian. But the town also invited a Jewish layman and Baha’i practitioner to say prayers and granted a Wiccan priestess’s request to do so.
“There is a time-honored tradition of legislative prayer that reflects the respect of each faith for other faiths and the aspiration, common to so many creeds, of finding higher meaning and deeper purpose in these fleeting moments each of us spends upon this earth,” the 4th Circuit Court ruling said.
It added: “ As the history of legislative invocations demonstrates, the desire of this good county for prayer at the opening of its public sessions can be realized in many ways that further both religious exercise and religious tolerance.”
There is no reason for Christians to fear diminution. Some 70.6 percent of Americans are Christians, according to a 2014 study by the Pew Research Center on Religion and Public Life. Non-Christian followers, including Jews and Muslims, constitute nearly 6 percent. (In Virginia, the study said, 73 percent identify as Christian.) Our national holidays, of course, include Christmas.
Guidelines for prayers before governmental bodies can be confusing.
The intent should be: Inclusion. No coercion. Tolerance.