Americans United’s Legal Department on Friday sent a letter to the Orange County Board of Education in California warning members that the board’s policy of including religious invocations before meetings is unconstitutional and that proposed changes to that policy are equally problematic.
While the Supreme Court has allowed some types of government bodies, such as state legislatures and city and county councils, to open their meetings with prayers, school boards are treated differently. Students may be attending these meetings, and it’s important that they not be exposed to religious practices against their will. In addition, the legal justification for prayers before legislatures is that there is a tradition of such prayers going back to the founding of our country, but there is no such long-standing tradition of prayers before school boards, which did not even exist when our country was founded.
Lurking in the background of any discussion over the issue of invocations before government meetings is a question that isn’t often asked but should be: What is the point of this exercise?
The Supreme Court has ruled that state legislatures and municipal councils may include pre-meeting prayers that don’t proselytize or denigrate other faiths as a way of adding solemnity to the proceedings. Are there other ways to add this desired solemnity that don’t involve government sponsoring a religious act? Of course. There can be a moment of silence or a reading that is inspirational but not religious. Board members who truly desire a spiritual experience before the meeting always have the option of meeting privately for prayer.
The insistence by some government officials that there must be a public expression of faith or it doesn’t count is curious. Many of the political leaders who make this argument are Christian. Not only does it go against the teachings of the founder of their faith, but it’s also an indication that something else is motivating these prayers: It’s either a plan by the government to use religion as a prop or a desire to send a message to some members of the community that they are favored because they share the government’s faith. In either case, that’s an inappropriate message for any unit of government to send.
The United States is becoming more diverse on matters of faith, and growing numbers are leaving organized religion entirely. Rather than fight for practices that many religious conservatives may consider “traditional,” the Orange County board would do better to take a hard look at their community and ask a simple question: Does this policy include and respect everyone in our community?
If they can’t honestly answer yes to that question, then it’s time for a change.
P.S. If you encounter a church-state problem in your community, let us know about it.