| Aug 08 2013
At practically all levels of government, dysfunction is an all too familiar reality. Nowhere is this more obvious to the American people than in what they see happening in Washington day after day. Yet, despite the often contentious and divisive debates that take place in Congress, every morning in the U.S. Senate we are reminded of the truly important things that unite us as "one nation, under God.
Every day before debate commences, the Senate pauses for prayer and reflection. It is an opportunity for senators to affirm what unites us and those we represent, and to reflect on the profound duty we owe our fellow Americans. As a nation founded on Judeo-Christian values, legislative bodies throughout the country, from the Senate down to local city governments, have made prayer a routine part of their day before getting down to the people's business. Unfortunately, a recent ruling by a federal court in New York threatens to put an end to this.
The latest skirmish in this battle comes from the town of Greece, New York. There, the town council invites guest chaplains to lead a prayer before each session. The opportunity to deliver the prayer (or reflection) is open to individuals of all faiths, and none at all. Prayers have been offered by members of various Christian denominations, the Jewish faith, and a Wiccan. Nevertheless, because the town is overwhelmingly Christian, so are a large number of prayers. This was too much for the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, which ruled the town had violated the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibiting the establishment of religion.
This ruling is astounding and runs counter to what America has always been. The decision would put courts between Americans and their conscience, evaluating and second-guessing the content of prayers. The Second Circuit was frank about this, admitting that its ruling "may well prompt municipalities to pause and think carefully before adoption legislative prayer." If allowed to stand this decision would jeopardize not just legislative prayer, but it would also push the country one step further towards the "naked public square" where religion is stigmatized, feared, and something best kept private.
Legislative prayer has roots as deep as the country. In 1789, the first Senate elected the Episcopal Bishop of New York as its first Chaplain to lead the body in prayer. As our country has grown more diverse, so has the practice of prayer in the Senate. Chaplains have been drawn from a variety of Christian faiths, and the Senate has regularly been led in prayer by guest chaplains from other major religions, including Judaism, Islam and Hinduism.
Prayer has been a hallmark of not just the Senate, but the House of Representatives, and state and local legislatures around the country. Legislative prayer is as familiar as the Pledge of Allegiance, and has a longer pedigree. Yet, it is a practice that is under assault by those who badly misunderstand Americans' unique appreciation for the complementary roles of faith and freedom in our constitutional republic.
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