Let us pray: Just not in government meetings | Arkansas Blog

Let us pray: Just not in government meetings


RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENT: A typical city council prayer moment, this one from South Dakota.
  • RELIGIOUS ESTABLISHMENT: A typical city council prayer moment, this one from South Dakota.
My thanks to the Baptist Joint Committee, a venerable and unyielding defender of the notion that church and state should be separate, for news of a pending U.S. Supreme Court argument that could have some impact in Arkansas, depending.

In a case from New York, the court will consider the constitutionality of opening local government meetings with a prayer. It is nearly a ubiquitous practice in Arkansas.

The Baptist Joint Committee says such an exercise "violates the First Amendment and demeans genuine faith."

The committee has filed a friend of the court brief in support of those challenging the practice, which has been held improper in the New York town of Greece by the 2nd U.S. Court of Appeals. That court noted that the majority of the prayers contained "uniquely Christian" language and thus amounted to an unconstitutional establishment of religion. I'd bet an analysis of public prayers by Arkansas government bodies would lean heavily to the Jesus-centric outline, too.

The town’s “practice of beginning a participatory local government meeting with a communal prayer infringes the liberty of conscience of not just religious minorities, but also of Christians who believe that worship should be voluntary,” according to the brief. The Founders and our Baptist forebears understood “that prayer is an expression of voluntary religious devotion, not the business of the government.”

The Baptist Joint Committee acknowledges earlier rulings that have approved the opening of state legislative bodies with prayer, as the Arkansas legislature does.

The prayer practice upheld in Marsh involved a chaplain employed by the Nebraska Legislature to minister to its members, a practice the Court found comparable to the historical tradition in Congress. The practice in Greece differs fundamentally because “[l]ocal board meetings directly affect citizens in a way that legislative meetings do not,” according to the brief. “A passive visitor in the gallery of the U.S. Congress is simply in a different position than a citizen preparing to speak before a town board.”

“By opening a local government meeting with an exercise of religious devotion, a political assembly is transformed into a religious congregation,” said K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee. “It is because of – not in spite of – the importance of prayer and religion that we object to this government assumption of religious functions,” Hollman said.

The brief was joined by the General Synod of the United Church of Christ and the Stated Clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Think, for just a moment, of the flights of oratory Jason Rapert could reach should these good Baptists prevail. Oral arguments occur in November.

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