‘Nonsectarian’ Prayer Still Alienates Nontheists

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals handed down an important ruling for church-state separation last week, affirming that officials in Forsyth County, North Carolina, were wrong to open an estimated four-fifths of public meetings with overtly sectarian prayers that specifically referenced Jesus Christ.

“[P]rayer in governmental settings carries risks,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III in the majority opinion. “The proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers—or appears to prefer—particular sects or creeds at the expense of others.”

Two local residents, Janet Joyner and Constance Lynn Blackmon, filed a lawsuit against the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners in 2007, with assistance from the ACLU of North Carolina and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, after objecting to the invocations that were routinely delivered by clergy to begin each meeting. According to the court:

“The prayers frequently contained references to Jesus Christ; indeed, at least half of the prayers offered between January 2006 and February 2007 contained concluding phrases such as ‘We pray this all in the name under whom is all authority the Lord Jesus Christ,’ ‘[I]t’s in Jesus’ name that we prayer[,] Amen,’ and ‘We thank You, we praise You, and we give Your name glory, and we ask it all in Your Son Jesus’ name.’”

The frequency of such blatantly Christian invocations, the district court ruled and the federal court affirmed, violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, as well as Supreme Court precedent mandating that prayers in a government setting must at the very least be “nonsectarian.”

“[L]egislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible – it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject to tenets of other faiths in favor of just one,” Wilkinson wrote.

As The New York Times noted in an editorial this week, this ruling is another great victory for “the essential boundary between church and state.” However, I have one specific issue with Judge Wilkinson’s otherwise fantastic opinion (which you can read in full here).

Yes, public meetings should be as inclusive as possible. And yes, government should not endorse one religion over others. But why is it OK for the government to endorse religion over non-religion? Isn’t that what any “nondenominational” prayer that refers even vaguely to a higher power does? The court has ruled – as it should – that it is not acceptable for government to endorse Christian prayers, because doing so alienates people of other religions. So why doesn’t that logic extend to include people of no religion as well? There are millions of atheist, agnostic, humanist and other types of nontheistic Americans who do not believe in prayer, deities, or a higher power. When a public meeting is opened with any prayer—no matter how innocuous others may think it to be—nontheistic citizens are alienated by it.

And if you don’t believe that a “nonsectarian” prayer can be alienating, here’s how the court defined one:

“[A nonsectarian] ideal is simply this: that those of different creeds are in the end kindred spirits, united by a respect paid higher providence and by a belief in the importance of religious faith.”

To state the obvious, people who have no religious faith cannot be united with others “by a belief in the importance of religious faith.”

In defending the lack of minority religions in the invocations, the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners argued that a Christian opening prayer reflected “the religious demographics of the [local] communities.”

The reason that Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim clergy rarely, if ever, opened their meetings, they claimed, was because few practitioners of those religions live in the area. That may be. But what about nonreligious citizens, who were mentioned nowhere in last week’s ruling? According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, roughly 10 percent of North Carolina’s residents do not identify with a particular religion. That’s more than 950,000 people! At least some of them must presumably live in Forsyth County, and may even attend public meetings from time to time. When they do attend, they should feel welcome.

But that was not the case for either of the plaintiffs:

“On Joyner and Blackmon’s account, the overall atmosphere made them feel distinctly unwelcome and ‘coerced by [their] government into endorsing a Christian prayer.’ Blackmon claimed that she felt compelled to stand and bow her head because of the Chair’s instruction to stand and because of the audience’s response. Joyner offered a similar account, believing that if she had failed to comply, it would have “negatively prejudice[d] consideration of [her] intended petition as a citizen appearing for public comment.’”

So in addition to failing to “send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion,” the board’s opening prayer also made the plaintiffs feel “compelled” to participate out of fear that not doing so would have a negative impact on the actual public business Joyner had come to conduct. That’s hugely problematic.

“Faith is as deeply important as it is deeply personal,” Wilkinson wrote in the majority opinion, “and the government should not appear to suggest that some faiths have it wrong and others got it right.”

Exactly. And nor should the government suggest that having faith is right – and not having faith is wrong. If public meetings truly want to be as inclusive as possible, they should skip prayers entirely and get on with the business of government.

In fact, earlier this year, the Hawaii state Senate became the first state legislative body in the nation to eliminate the daily prayer conducted before its sessions. Let’s hope others follow.

Spreading Happiness

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