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The very first amendment attached to our Constitution begins this way.....
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;.....
I take those words at face value. Government should neither prohibit the free exercise of religion by citizens NOR participate in any way in establishing religion by way of law or precedent.
When The Reverend was in the first grade in the 1950's, each school day began with a class recitation of the Christian "Lord's Prayer" and the Pledge of Allegiance. That was approximately 1955. Yes, I was there before evil people "removed god from our classrooms."
In 1954, as America girded it's loins to fight the long Cold War against the atheist-communist threat, the two words "under god" were added to the Pledge of Allegiance, where they remain to this day. A nation prohibited by the first amendment from establishing religion....officially established religion.
In 1957 the U.S added "in god we trust" to our paper currency, most definitely a symbolic rebuttal of the Soviet atheist threat. Those words remain on our money to this day.....an inarguable government endorsement of religion.
In 2013 the U.S. Supreme Court has taken up a case which involves government sponsored prayer before public meetings.
A couple of ladies from Greece, New York who regularly attended public Town Board meetings there inquired about the opening of each meeting with prayer.....
“They said we could either leave or not listen,” said Ms. Galloway, 51, a therapeutic recreation specialist who has lived here for more than 30 years. “And we felt that was unacceptable.”
The case is now in the hands of the Supreme Court of the United States. The question is: does the first amendment prohibit the opening of public meetings with prayer? Setting judicial political posturing aside for a moment, the correct answer is....absolutely. The Supremes may tell us otherwise in a few months....but they will be mistaken on the facts.
First....prayer, no matter how you parse it, is a religious activity. Public prayer is, then, a group religious activity. Group religious activities are protected in the U.S. EXCEPT when the government attempts to lead or sponsor that group religious activity. The government is prohibited from establishing religion. A public community meeting of the Town Board in Greece, N.Y. is a government meeting. Therefore, the correct Supremes ruling, if the 1st amendment has any meaning in 2013, would be to strike down the Greece Town Board practice as unconstitutional.
Second....when public prayer is offered up in a group setting, what, ostensibly, is the group doing? Invoking the "blessing" of some invisible deity. It's the same as saying "grace" before a meal. Point being, again, that public prayer is a religious activity. The burden here, at least to me, is on those who defend the public promotion of a religious activity in a government-sponsored meeting. If government is going to promote an official prayer before convening a public meeting, then it is up to those who promote the activity to demonstrate how it is that prayer is not a religious activity.
Third....Tradition. Most folks who argue in favor of public government meeting prayer do so with the folksy "common sense" answer that invoking the blessing of an invisible deity before an official government meeting is just what we have always done...it's part of the American tradition.
But tradition is not law. It used to be American tradition to treat dark skinned citizens as sub-human.....but, as we know now, the Constitution's precepts prohibited the unequal treatment of citizens on the basis of their skin color all along. "All men are created equal."
Finally....there's one more defense of government-sponsored prayer which I find very offensive....and that is that those who might be offended by government sponsoring a religious activity to open a public meeting...can simply refuse to participate.... wait in the hallway, or outside, until the religious activity is finished. The two ladies in Greece, N.Y. who brought the suit were told they could wait outside if they were offended by government-sponsored prayer. That's what finally made them decide to sue.
I expect the Supremes, in 2013 a purely political branch of the U.S. government, to split this prayer-baby in half in an attempt to please both sides of the dispute. But there are not two legitimate sides to this dispute. Any form of government in these United States which promotes, sponsors, establishes or encourages a public religious activity...like an opening prayer to convene a public meeting....is violating the first amendment's clear prohibition against doing any such thing.