The high court’s decision to hear the dispute during its fall term has led some news reporters to look at practices in the communities they cover. This story from the Panama City (Fla.) News Herald is a typical effort to put a local spin on a national story.
Also typical is the attitude expressed by some local government officials. One hears the same arguments over and over again: We should be able to do what we want. We have the right to pray. No one has ever complained.
Consider this comment by Bay District Schools Superintendent Bill Husfelt: “I really think that should be a local decision. I get frustrated when people try to tell us how to live our lives. I just think this is another area of federal control.”
Yes, it is an area of federal control. And the federal document that controls it is called the Constitution. That document, Superintendent Husfelt might recall, contains provisions prohibiting the government from promoting one religion over another.
A comment by George Gainer, chair of the Bay County Commission, raises another common argument.
“To eliminate that from the meeting would certainly interfere with our freedom of religion and freedom of speech,” Gainer said. “I believe that this country was founded on a firm faith in God and I believe that our forefathers meant for God to be a big part of our way of life. I believe that’s what made this country great and will continue to make it great.”
Gainer and his fellow commissioners – as individuals – have every right, under the First Amendment, to pray on their own as they see fit. But that’s not good enough for them. They insist on a right to pray on behalf of their entire community at a governmental meeting.
When they include official sectarian prayers as part of the agenda for their meetings, they are making a theological decision for everyone: This is our community’s favored mode of religious expression. If you agree with it, you’re an insider. If you don’t, you’re a second-class citizen.
Several local officials told the News Herald that no one has ever complained to them about the prayer practice. They seem to assume, therefore, that most people are happy with it. But that may not be the case. It takes a lot of courage to oppose official prayers before government meetings or in public schools. The people who choose to stand up can be subjected to a lot of abuse and threats.
Recently, Americans United protested the inclusion of prayers in a public school event in South Bristol, Maine. Some of the responses we received from residents of the community were rather heated, to say the least. One man suggested that we be placed in a lobster pot and tossed into the sea.
AU’s offices are a long way from Maine, so we shrugged it off. A resident of the town might feel differently. The bottom line is that local officials should never assume that just because no one has complained that everyone in town is on board with what’s going on. Some might be reluctant to speak out for fear of sparking community backlash.
We also often hear the claim that all types of prayers are welcome. Panama City Beach Mayor Gayle Oberst told the newspaper that she’d be fine with a variety of prayers.
“Most of our prayers are for the men and women in service and for the City Council to do the correct and good things,” Oberst said. “I don’t think it would matter in what faith the prayers were offered.”
That’s easy to say. In practice, as soon as someone offers a Muslim, Hindu or Wiccan prayer,
Religious Right zealots are immediately on their feet screaming. And if a non-religious person tries to offer a secular invocation, things get really interesting.
Government’s first duty is to represent all of its citizens, regardless of what they believe (or don’t believe) about God and theology. It can’t do that when it’s favoring one faith over others by opening meetings with prayers that are almost always from a certain faith tradition.
Local government, as the branch that is closest to the people, has a special obligation to treat all people equally and leave promotion of religion to the private sector. It’s a shame some local officials don’t understand that.