Separating church, state

Separating church, state

June 8th, 2012 in Opinion Times

You can say this about the Hamilton County Commission. It is consistent -- at least when it comes to offering a Christian prayer at the opening of every meeting. The most recent came Thursday, when Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor intoned a prayer and concluded it by saying, "All these blessings we ask in your son Jesus' name, amen." Such a conclusion undoubtedly pleases most area residents, but that does not make the practice right. Such an invocation violates the U.S. Constitution, and is a deliberate thumb in the eye to the many members of our community -- Jewish, Hindu, Muslim and other religions -- who follow different faiths.

Commission members -- and Taylor -- should know that. If they did not, they were reminded of it late last month when the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to commissioners noting that the body had invoked Jesus' name in every 2012 prayer. That practice, the foundation correctly pointed out, rises to the level of endorsing a specific religion at public government meeting. Commissioners promised to study the issue and referred the matter to their attorney -- Taylor --who promised to review the letter and advise commission members on how to respond.

That advice has not been forthcoming. Indeed, given the fact that Taylor offered a prayer of the type specifically mentioned in the letter, it would seem that his advice would be tainted if not useless. His actions -- like those of commission members who listened to him pray in their presence -- clearly indicates a preference for prayers at commission meetings to continue as they have in the past.

That understandably does not sit well with some members of the community -- all presumably constituents of the various commissioners. Several attended Thursday's meeting to protest the inclusive prayer. Tommy Coleman, one who rose to protest the practice, got it just right. "Your use of prayer in this chamber and its use in official government excludes, marginalizes, belittles other faiths and the people who practice." Just so.

Any prayer tailored to the majority Christian community purposefully excludes members of other religions -- Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs. Baha'is and others, as well as those who profess no faith at all. That's no small matter in a community that is home to an increasingly diverse population.

The desire to pray publicly at a public government meeting is understandable. That, however, does not confer license on elected officials to offer an inclusive prayer of their choice. Rather, the impulse to pray should be manifested in a more ecumenical prayer that is inclusive of all -- for example, in the name of our Creator -- or, better still, a moment of silence and repose that would allow every individual present to pray -- or not -- in a manner of his or her choosing.

That would, or should, satisfy the commission's seeming preference for a prayer at a government meeting without violating long-standing precedents in law that rightly promote the separation of church and state. The courts, it should be noted, have not banned prayer or an individual's right to pray. They have simply, rightly and repeatedly rejected public, i.e. government endorsed, prayers that directly or indirectly endorse a specific religion, and that by doing so, exclude religious minorities.

Prayers "in Jesus' name" certainly fall into the type specifically banned by the courts.

Those who support prayer of the sort regularly offered at commission meetings here -- and that, very obviously, seems to include members of that body and the county attorney -- argue that public prayer is simply a way to show the connection between religion and the nation's laws. It does not. It just provides cover for what is essentially an emotional rather than legal argument.

While that argument has appeal, particularly in a region where religion has a wide following, it ignores the growing diversity of various faiths in Hamilton County. It also forcefully insinuates that those who do not adhere to the religion favored by the Christian majority -- or to any faith at all -- are inherently unequal in the eyes of government and the legal system. That is not only unfair, it is illegal.

Those opposed to displays of public prayer at a meeting of a governmental body here or anywhere rightly believe that faith is an intensely personal matter. They also believe that officials who are elected by voters representing a variety of beliefs should adhere to the First Amendment dictate that prohibits any government establishment of religion.

The commission has a chance, indeed a welcome opportunity, to halt the divisive debate about local government's role in religion. There are many precedents -- both historical and legal -- to separate government from religion and to allow the return of matters of faith and prayer to individuals and to the community's many houses of worship. The Hamilton County Commission, whatever the advice of its own or outside attorneys, should act promptly to do so.