Chafee Chafes Cleric: New Rhode Island Governor Opts Out Of Government-Sponsored Prayer

Lincoln D. Chafee may be new to the Rhode Island governor’s office, but he certainly isn’t new to the Constitution.

According to a report in the Providence Journal, Chafee did not follow in his predecessors’ footsteps by intermingling religion and government in his inaugural activities. Instead, the new governor chose not to hold an inaugural public prayer service on the morning of his swearing-in.

Though he still invited a cross-section of religious leaders to the inauguration to perform an invocation and benediction, Chafee’s decision to leave an official religious service out of the event was a good one.

His explanation for stopping the practice was even better.

The governor’s spokesman, Michael Trainor, explained that Chafee, an Episcopalian, did not want to have the service out of “respect [for] the separation of church and state,” which is an “important constitutional principle.”

Trainor later clarified that statement, saying that the governor felt that individuals should pray each in their own way, rather than in a prayer service organized by the governor’s office.

We couldn’t agree more with Gov. Chafee. In fact, we wish other public officials would take his lead.

In late December, Americans United legal department urged Washington D.C.’s new mayor,  Vincent Gray, not to hold an official interfaith prayer service Jan. 2, the day of his inauguration,.

“Ensuring both the fact and the appearance of governmental neutrality with respect to religion is especially important in our increasingly diverse society, where citizens hold a wide array of faiths and views about religion,” our letter asserted.

Though Gray went ahead with the event, we are happy to see that not all public officials think marrying religion to government is the best idea.

Of course, Chafee’s prudent decision to uphold the separation of church and state didn’t go without criticism.

Providence’s Roman Catholic Bishop Thomas J. Tobin did not attend the inauguration, despite receiving an invitation, and blasted Chafee in a column in the Rhode Island Catholic called “Has Our State Lost Its Soul?”

Tobin attacked Chafee for upholding church-state separation, which the bishop claims has been used as a tool to silence the faith community.

“The ‘separation of church and state’ is meant to protect religion from the interference of the state,” he said. “It was never intended to remove every spiritual aspiration, prayerful utterance, or reference to God from public life.”

He continued,  “I’ve found that whenever I’ve spoken out on public issues — e.g. abortion, gay marriage or immigration — some irritated souls, arguing the ‘separation of church and state,’ will insist that I’m out of line. In fact, religious leaders have every right, indeed, the duty to speak out on public issues.”

They certainly do have that right, but not at a government-sponsored event – and they have no right to use the power of government to enforce theological doctrines that they have not been able to persuade people to adopt voluntarily.

Tobin is wrong to believe that the First Amendment only protects religion from government; it also must prevent the government from imposing religion. American history shows conclusively that this was a concern of our founders.

Chafee was absolutely right to respect the differing belief systems of those living in his state. The government has no business telling people to pray – that should be left to each individual.