There is a headline of note seen across America recently.
Before I go further and someone falsely accuses me of advocating church/state union or even desiring a theocracy, I have said more than once not even Theo wants a theocracy. It was intended for ancient Israel only.
There is a case on the Supreme Court docket addressing the issue of public prayer in public meetings.
The “Religious Clause” of the First Amendment to our Constitution reads: “Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause in recent years has out-muscled the Free Exercise Clause.
In the 1980s, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor issued opinions resulting in the law being interpreted to mean not only is public prayer prohibited, but the public display of the Ten Commandments and of nativity scenes are also disallowed. Many argue this is dramatic overkill of the original intent. As written, the law can be difficult to interpret.
Now “religious coercion” is the phrase being increasingly employed.
In recent years the philosophy behind interpreting the law is that an individual opposing public prayer should not be imposed upon by having such a prayer offered in their presence. That, they say, is coercion.
Conversely the argument can be made that the majority favoring such prayer should not be restricted in doing so and thus coerced into silence. Such coercion is seen as “restricting the free exercise thereof.” Being forced not to use the name of Jesus is also seen as coercive.
Renewed argument is being made that public prayers are valid as so long as no one is coerced into having to pray such a prayer. The new standard would be that opponents to public prayer would have to prove they are forcefully being made to participate, thus “religious coercion.”
Currently 85 members of the House of Representatives and 34 members of the Senate have joined friend-of-the-court briefs urging the court to make clear that prayer and religious invocations are constitutional.
The present administration has joined in also. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli Jr., representative of the Obama administration, has joined in similar support saying opening a meeting with a Christian prayers “does not amount to an unconstitutional establishment of religion merely because most prayer-givers are Christians and any or most of their prayers contain sectarian references.”
In 1792, Congress ordered Bibles printed which were referred to as “a neat edition of the Holy Scriptures for the use in our schools” and “recommended the edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.”
In 1803, Congress, under President Jefferson, authorized funds to “evangelize Native Americans and build churches for them.” While Jefferson was president, the Bible and Watts Hymnal were the two primary textbooks for public schools.
As an indication of what our first congress intended by the First Amendment, consider these items on the agenda in the same session when the amendment was passed. They appointed chaplains to the armed forces. Lawmakers determined the inauguration of President Washington should culminate with worship services at St. Paul’s Chapel. On the very day the amendment was passed, they called upon President Washington to proclaim a day of “public thanksgiving and prayer.”
Notice, public and prayer.
The Rev. Dr. Nelson Price is pastor emeritus of Roswell Street Baptist Church.