Last month, the Americans United Legal Department sent a letter to the Reno County Commission in Kansas. A resident of that area had been attending Commission meetings and noticed that just about all of them opened with Christian prayer. That didn’t seem right, so this person contacted us.
Sure enough, our attorneys did some research and found that Christian prayers were used nearly 90 percent of the time to open these government meetings. They promptly wrote a letter to the Commission, letting its members know that this was very problematic from a constitutional standpoint.
Some good news: The Commission has directed its attorney to draft a new policy covering invocations. The policy will ask guest clergy to use non-sectarian prayers.
Naturally not everyone is happy with the change. Robert Noland of the Wichita-based Kansas Family Policy Council (a group that, according to its website, “champions a biblical worldview”), groused that “This effort is to single out Christ. Jesus Christ is the only target.”
Well, no. If the commission had been offering up regular supplications to Allah, Shiva, Zeus or even the Flying Spaghetti Monster, Americans United would have objected to that as well. Our belief is that government must represent people of many different faiths (as well as those who don’t believe in deities) and should refrain from sponsoring any type of religious activity.
To be clear, we would have preferred that the Reno County Commission drop official invocations entirely. Members who felt the need for spiritual guidance would still be free to pray privately on their own before the meeting, but they would no longer presume to pray in everyone else’s name. Unfortunately, the U.S. Supreme Court opened the door to government use of non-sectarian prayers in a 1983 ruling, so this is probably the best we can do.
This issue stirred up emotions on both sides in the area. I was pleased to see a local minister bring some much-needed clarity to the issue in a column that ran in the Hutchinson News.
Bob Layne, a retired Episcopal priest (and former member of the Kentucky state legislature), urged a reexamination of the entire issue of government-endorsed prayer. He doesn’t see much value in it.
Layne noted that he and his wife begin each day with prayer and Bible reading. It’s obviously meaningful for them. But he recalled that when he was in the Kentucky Senate, the daily prayer ritual was anything but meaningful.
“Often during the somewhat lengthy praying of the chaplain, the senators would roll up the desktops, place the daily newspaper in the well, stand with heads bowed, and just read the news until the preacher said ‘Amen,’” wrote Layne. “Most paid little attention to the prayer. Also, quite often the preacher invoked the Almighty to nudge or knock the lawmakers into approving whatever agenda the preacher was advocating. Of course, this was usually very subtle, but it was there, always accompanied with a veiled threat of dire consequences if ignored. But even that had little effect. When I prayed over the Kansas Legislature, I basically felt like spiritual veneer being spread over the session to somehow sanctify the proceedings, which often were anything but holy.”
Layne advised the Reno County Commission to follow the advice of Jesus in the Book of Matthew: “Do not pray like the hypocrites. Whenever you pray, go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father in secret.”
Observed Layne, “I honestly believe that praying in our homes is much more powerful than public prayers, school prayers, or official prayers of any sort. Far too often, the focus of public prayer is on the one praying rather than the deity toward whom the prayer is so loudly and passionately voiced. (Tim Tebow, take note.)”
I can only say one word to that: “Amen!”