Americans don’t agree on much, but one thing pretty much everyone can agree on is that Congress is not a very popular institution right now. A recent poll found that only 8 percent of us think Congress is doing a good job.
Americans United’s Legislative Department works with members of Congress and knows that there are lots of good men and women serving in that body. So what accounts for this?
I suspect it’s a matter of priorities. The jobless rate remains too high, and the economy continues to look fragile. People are worried about their ability to pay the bills.
Too many in Congress – especially among the leadership – don’t seem to share these concerns. Some of its members seem determined, in fact, to score cheap political points with meaningless resolutions that further the “culture war” but don’t help anyone in need.
Consider H. Res. 622, which was recently introduced by U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg (R-Mich.). The measure, which has 33 co-sponsors, would put the House on record as expressing support for official prayers before school board meetings.
As a practical matter, resolutions like this have little meaning. Congress can pass a resolution stating that the Earth is flat, but that doesn’t make it so. But these legislative gestures are still annoying because increasingly they are vehicles to assail our fundamental freedoms and score political points.
This particular resolution, which drones on for four pages, cites a 1983 Supreme Court ruling dealing with prayers before state legislatures. It says this ruling, Marsh v. Chambers, permits ceremonial prayers before government meetings and calls them “a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of the Nation.”
The resolution makes other dubious claims, among them the assertion that the United States was “founded on the principle of freedom of religion and not freedom from religion.”
The right-wingers love to repeat this statement ad nauseam, but it’s insipid. These concepts are two sides of the same coin; they aren’t in conflict.
When you exercise your freedom of religion by, say, adopting Methodism, you are by extension saying you don’t want to be a Catholic, a Mormon or a Muslim. It would be hard for you to practice your Methodism if the government is at every opportunity trying to force Catholicism, Mormonism or Islam down your throat. (And I can guarantee you that every fundamentalist Christian in the country would demand “freedom from religion” if public institutions suddenly adopted Islam.)
Americans United filed a brief in a 2005 case from Delaware challenging official prayers before school board meetings. In that ruling, a federal appeals court struck down the prayers, which were almost always Christian, noting that students often attend school board meetings and that they should not be subjected to religious worship against their will.
Walberg and his supporters are urging school boards to get around this by adopting so-called “non-sectarian” prayers. Here’s another idea: Instead of fussing over what type of religious worship to use before a public meeting, school board members should leave prayer to the individual conscience and focus instead on issues like the budget, adequate staffing and ensuring that children are receiving the best education possible.
As for Congress, its popularity might improve if its members resolved to stop playing politics with religion and focused on the things that really matter to Americans.