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A federal judge has banned Christian prayers from the city council meetings in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Only “non-sectarian prayers” will be allowed. This is the latest sortie in the attempt of the United States government to enforce what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus called “The Naked Public Square.” That term refers to the systematic removal of religion (especially Christianity) from public discourse in the United States. Usually proponents of the naked public square refer to Thomas Jefferson’s referring to a “wall of separation” between church and state. Yet the term “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution–the First Amendment only forbids the U. S. Congress from establishing a religion and forbids the government from prohibiting the free exercise of religion. It does not even forbid a state from having an established church if that individual state so choose. It took the creative reading of meaning into the First Amendment by members of the Supreme Court and by secularist federal judges to force a so-called “religiously neutral stance” on the American people. Religion is relegated to the private sphere.

Yet no one can remain neutral on religion–as William James pointed out in his famous essay, “The Will to Believe,” “neutrality” is de facto a rejection of religion. Religions claim to have implications for the whole of life, public and private. To privatize religion is to destroy an essential part of religion’s identity. A “neutral stance” of the government is, in effect, an endorsement of practical atheism.

There also can be no such thing as a “nonsectarian prayer.” A prayer to a deity of any kind reflects a bias toward theistic religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Theravada Buddhists do not believe in God, or else believe that whether a deity exists is not important to ending desire and suffering. Would not a prayer to a deity oppose their teaching? Atheists would not agree with any kind of prayer. A prayer not using the name of Jesus is nonsectarian; it is biased against Christianity and toward the other two great theistic religions. A removal of a prayer from city council meetings would not help, since this would reflect a bias toward (practical) atheism.

A better solution would be to allow ministers from various faiths to present a prayer or devotional at the city council meeting. A Jewish rabbi or a Muslim Imam could pray to God without invoking the name of Jesus. A Theravada Buddhist could present some sayings of the Buddha about ending desire. A Christian could pray in the name of Jesus. An atheist might present a short meditation on the glory of science. Those in the audience who do not agree with the theology behind a particular prayer or devotional or meditation can surely tolerate it–no one is forcing them to give up their religious beliefs. If I am ever asked to pray publicly, I will pray in accordance with my religion, Christianity. I will end my prayer “in Jesus’ name.” To do otherwise would violate my conscience. A Jewish rabbi who leads a prayer should not be required to use the name of Jesus. A Theravada Buddhist need not make a reference to a deity. That is a solution fair to different religious groups that makes more sense than a “nonsectarian prayer.”

 

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