Earlier this week, Dan Gilgoff at U.S. News and World Report reported that President Barack Obama has started a new tradition at some of his presidential events.
On some occasions, at least, it seems Obama's opening act will be a prayer vetted by the White House.
According to the U.S. News blog, White House staff contacted local clergy to open the two town hall meetings that Obama held to sell his economic stimulus package and another rally to unveil his mortgage bailout plan.
Gilgoff told the story of Ryan Culp of Elkhart, Ind., who turned down a request by Obama to deliver a prayer during the presidential campaign because he is a conservative Republican and, Culp said, "didn't want to be perceived to be a supporter of a Democratic campaign." Culp was asked again now that Obama is in office and this time obliged.
The day before Culp was to give the prayer, he was required to call an aide at the White House and recite the prayer for approval. The aide told him the prayer was "beautiful."
For the Fort Myers, Fla., town hall meeting, the White House vetted a prayer by James Bing, pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church, and in Phoenix, an administrator for the Tohono O'odham Nation delivered a prayer before Obama took the stage.
The events were televised nationally, but the prayers were not. They seem to have been conducted under the radar with the invocations being delivered before the president arrived and before cameras started rolling.
But regardless of who is hearing the prayers – whether it is the hundreds of people showing up at the rally or the millions watching on TV – it's the same Constitution. And our Constitution's promise is to keep church and state separate.
As Gilgoff points out, "Though invocations have long been commonplace at presidential inaugurations and certain events like graduations or religious services at which presidents are guests, the practice of commissioning and vetting prayers for presidential rallies is unprecedented in modern history."
There is a reason for that. Neither the president nor any other government official can prefer religion over non-religion, or one religious belief over others. These prayers exclude non-believers and could make many attending the rally feel uncomfortable or as if they do not belong.
Obama crossed the line by allowing these prayers. As AU Executive Director Barry Lynn said, "The only thing worse than having these prayers in the first place is to have them vetted, because it entangles the White House in core theological matters."
The White House's only comment regarding this prayer routine was that it was standard procedure during Obama's campaign. Perhaps so, but this is a new day. Obama is president of all Americans. Rallies to promote the stimulus package or any other public policy matter are not religious events. Now that Obama has taken the oath of office, it's time for him to live up to his rhetoric of inclusion and drop exclusionary prayers at public events.