Public prayer and the law

Public prayer and the law

May 25th, 2012 in Opinion Times

The offering of a Christian prayer before every Hamilton County Commission meeting is so customary that most people assume the invocation is a part of the agenda. If it is, it should not be. Prayer has no place at any public meeting of any government agency here or elsewhere. If the commissioners believe otherwise, a letter from The Freedom From Religion Foundation -- received Monday -- is a timely reminder that courts have ruled that such prayers violate the U.S. Constitution.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry gets the point, sort of. "This may be something we need to get some advice from our county attorney on," he said. How true. What County Attorney Rheubin Taylor should find after a review of applicable laws is that prayers endorsing a specific religion at a public government meeting have been outlawed. The prayers before commission meetings certainly fit that criterion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation pointed out in its letter to commissioners that "every 2012 prayer so far has been given "in Jesus' name." That, to be sure, meets the criteria for endorsement of a specific religion. More inclusive ecumenical prayers to avoid offense to Jews, Muslims and some other faiths would be given in the name of "our creator," or simply "God." More legally acceptable would be a moment of silence to allow a private prayer.

Still, that doesn't mean the commission will give up its prayer. Public sentiment clearly favors the tradition and commissioners likely would prefer to avoid anything that would suggest that they as individuals or as a group oppose prayer. Instead, the commissioners might try to modify current practices to better meet the law. Henry indicated as much when he said, "We're [the commission] not going to discontinue prayer, though."

That's asking for trouble. Trying to tiptoe around established law is almost always an exercise in frustration. Federal case law, the foundation letter makes clear, supports the argument that Christian prayer at public government meetings violates constitutional protections against establishment of religion. There are a narrow exceptions, legal scholars agree, but it is unlikely they would apply here.

The county has been down a similar road before. It proved a costly experience. In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the county for posting the Ten Commandments in the courthouse and two other buildings. A federal judge ruled that the display violated the constitutional requirement of church and state separation. He ordered the plaques removed. He also ordered the county to pay attorney and court costs -- about $70,000.

The commission should avoid a costly repeat performance. It should abandon prayer before its meetings. The law is clear. It strongly supports traditions of religious freedom and the right to private prayer. It does not sanction officially supported and conducted prayers in public government meetings like the commission holds here. Putting an end to the current practice might not be politically popular, but it is the right and the just thing to do.