Prior to being hired by the American Jewish World, I worked at the Capitol in St. Paul. I was a writer for what then was known as the Public Information Office of the Minnesota House of Representatives, covering committee meetings and House floor sessions. At the latter gatherings, a member of the clergy opened the proceedings with a prayer. Often it was a Christian pastor who provided some inspiring words – and then concluded the prayer with something about “in the name of Jesus Christ.”
I recall approaching a Jewish legislator on one occasion and inquiring about the propriety of a Christian prayer opening the House floor session. The representative just shrugged and offered a comment minimizing the religious slight.
However, the opening prayer became a big issue a few years later, while I was working at the Jewish World. Some House members decided that the prayer to open floor sessions should be nonsectarian, and the body’s rules were amended to reflect the new regime. I found a copy of the 1999-2000 “red book,” the directory of the Minnesota Legislature. The permanent rules of the House state: “The call to order is followed by a nondenominational prayer by the Chaplain that respects the religious diversity of the House, or time for a brief meditation…”
Of course, that verbiage didn’t sit well with certain representatives; not to put too fine a point on it, they were Republicans. After some acrimonious debate (ask Michael Paymar what happened), the House voted to strike the language about “nondenominational” and “respects the religious diversity of,” and go back to old language.
This is from the current House rules: “The call to order is followed by a prayer by the Chaplain or time for a brief meditation, then by the pledge of allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and then by a call of the roll of members.”
I surmised that evangelical Christian legislators were not satisfied with having church on Sunday, and wanted to have church on the House floor, too. They apparently wanted to have church all of the time and everywhere.
I was reminded of the controversy in the Legislature many years ago, while reading the New York Times report about the U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding prayers at town hall meetings. The 5-4 decision on Monday reversed an appeals court decision in favor of a lawsuit brought by Susan Galloway, who’s Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist, in Greece, an upstate New York hamlet.
JTA this week reported: “The town board has since 1999 opened meetings with a prayer, almost always by a Christian clergyman who at times proselytized. The plaintiffs held that the prayers should be nonsectarian, a position the Supreme Court’s conservative majority ruled overextended government reach.”
In his majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, declared: “Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government.”
Justice Kennedy further opined, “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech.”
Kennedy said that such a rule “would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”
However, Kennedy said that “a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize or betray an impermissible government purpose” would violate the Constitution.
JTA reported this week that several Jewish groups were troubled by the Supreme Court decision:
The Anti-Defamation League, in its statement, said the ruling was “deeply disturbing” and noted the circumstances of the Greece case, in which opening prayers involved not just lawmakers but citizens petitioning their town council.
“The religiously divisive implications of this new rule are troubling in any of these contexts, however it is particularly disturbing at the local level where ordinary citizens seek recourse from public officials and will likely feel pressured to participate in religious observances not of their own faith,” the ADL said.
Also condemning the decision were the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the American Jewish Committee.
The three Jews on the Supreme Court – Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Elena Kagan – dissented from the court majority. They were joined by Sonia Sotomayor.
JTA reported that Kagan, in her dissent, “cited a seminal moment in American Jewish history in 1790, when George Washington communicated with Moses Seixas, a lay official of the Jewish community in Newport, R.I.
“She noted that Seixas, in a letter to Washington, expressed gratitude for an American government ‘which to bigotry gives no sanction, to persecution no assistance – but generously affords to All liberty of conscience and immunities of Citizenship.’
“In his reply, now enshrined as a key document outlining religious freedoms, Washington, Kagan said, ‘like any successful politician’ knew to borrow a successful turn of phrase – and appropriated Seixas’ language.”
Since Washington’s day, the U.S. has become a much more racially, ethnically and religiously diverse nation. The days of assuming that everyone had a Christmas tree in their home and accepted Jesus as their lord and savior are long gone. However, the Supreme Court majority seems to have its collective head in the past, when majority – Christian – religious viewpoints held sway. The justices are unable to see that government bodies are coercing folks into a particular sectarian religious ideology when they open their meetings with explicitly Christian prayers.
When the Minnesota House held this type of debate, some legislators suggested that anyone offended by a Christian pastor’s opening prayer in the name of Jesus could go stand in the hallway. Is this the way we want government to operate?