“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others…But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Matthew 6, 5-6 – NSRV
On Wednesday, Nov. 6, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in its first case regarding prayer during legislative sessions since 1983, and while I’m not privy to what will be presented by either side, it’s unlikely the above passage from the Book of Matthew will come up.
The case is Town of Greece v. Galloway. Greece is a town of 96,000 people near Rochester, N.Y. In March 1999, the town supervisor changed the way the monthly town board opened its meetings from a moment of silence for a prayer to be delivered by local clergy or volunteers.
According to an Associated Press story and news release from Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, during the first nine years of this practice a Christian led every public prayer. In 2007, residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens, one a Jew the other an atheist, complained to town officials about the practice.
They were told they had two choices: don’t listen to the prayers or stop attending the meetings. Surprise, surprise, this didn’t sit well and the women sued in 2008.
There is plenty of precedence for allowing prayer in legislative sessions. The U.S. Senate begins with prayer, the Founding Fathers began their sessions with prayer and the 1983 case coming out of Nebraska affirmed that prayer opening legislative sessions did not violate the First Amendment’s admonition that Congress shall create “no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Many governing bodies holding corporate prayer, including the town of Greece, have tried to soften this practice by inviting members of non-Christian religions to take part. Doesn’t make it right, in my mind, and it doesn’t address the sensitivities of those who practice no religion, or don’t believe in it.
Which brings me to the Matthew passage, which addresses the essence of what prayer is meant to be – an intimate, individual connection with a supreme, guiding power. Other religions treat prayer similarly, maybe not with the same language but with instructions on what an individual is to do to get themselves – individually – into the proper state of mind and heart to commune with their deity.
Jesus’ wording in Matthew is specific: don’t do prayer in public because it’s supposed to be one-on-one with God. Prayer in public not only attracts attention from others, but it also detracts from the level of individual concentration and preparation needed to be truly effective.
At this point you may be thinking, OK, but what about prayer in church, or prayer among several people in a home, or at a non-public meeting? My answer is that it’s not public prayer because prayer under those circumstances is between people of at least like minds if not completely like beliefs.
Town board meetings, city council meetings, planning commission meetings, school board meetings, are not that way. There are people of all walks of life, all persuasions of faith and non-faith in attendance with the desire to deal with the day-to-day issues of running our society.
There are also people there who likely feel as I do, that prayer is something individual, personal, powerful and not to be demeaned through presentation in a public arena, especially an arena that can politicize the practice.
Which is the reason I would hope that the passage in Matthew would be brought up in the Supreme Court’s hearing, although, I’m not holding my breath.