For the last few weeks, students at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have been detouring around a street preacher whose stated mission is to save souls, but whose real talent appears to be offending people.
It’s a classic case of how we — over and over again — use religion as a bludgeoning tool rather than an invitation. A dividing line, rather than a ribbon of unity.
The same is true of “free speech,” which sometimes is confused as a ticket for unlimited rudeness and hate.
Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court — which opens its sessions asking God to save America and the court — heard arguments on a prayer case out of Greece, N.Y., that will have implications on our own public prayers before Hamilton County Commission meetings, among others.
This case is not about ending prayer. Does anyone really think anyone or anything can stop them from praying?
And it’s not about taking God or Christ out of anything public. It’s about being loving enough to be inclusive with whatever name we all call God and the Savior, or with our myriad strands of belief about just what God intends.
In 1983, the Supreme Court ruled legislatures could begin their sessions with a prayer as long as there is no attempt to proselytize or disparage any faith and the process of choosing the prayer-giver is not discriminatory.
That, in essence, meant the prayers either needed to be one-size-fits-all for believers of Christianity, Judaism and the scores of other faiths; or the prayer givers needed to be rotated among faiths. A Christian one week, a Jewish layman another week, a Baha’i leader another week, and so on. Inclusiveness.
Since that ruling, dozens of other cases have been filed to test the constitutionality of prayers at government venues other than legislative sessions, often with conflicting rulings in the lower courts.
Now, the Greece, N.Y., case may make new guidelines for the smaller public meeting venues. Like Hamilton County and Chattanooga. The high court could rule any day.
In Greece, the town board has almost exclusively offered Christian prayers — “in the name of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ who lives with you,” for instance. If that sounds familiar, it’s because that’s about all we ever hear around here.
And there’s nothing wrong with it, unless it’s used as a divider.
We shouldn’t need court rulings: Common sense and faith should tell us that love and unity will suffice.
Let us pray. Well and fairly. Amen.