Jesus is prohibited in public prayers

A federal appeals court has upheld a decision saying that Jesus cannot be invoked in public prayers. As one judge says in dissent:

“Thus … the majority has dared to step in and regulate the language of prayer—the sacred dialogue between humankind and God. Such a decision treats prayer agnostically; reduces it to a civil nicety; … Most frightfully, it will require secular [authorities] to evaluate and parse particular religious prayers…”

I have a solution: let people pray however they want. If you don’t like it, you can choose to see it as protected speech and choose not to be offended.

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About Geoff B.

Geoff B graduated from Stanford University (class of 1985) and worked in journalism for several years until about 1992, when he took up his second career in telecommunications sales. He has held many callings in the Church, but his favorite calling is father and husband. Geoff is active in martial arts and loves hiking and skiing. Geoff has five children and lives in Colorado.

13 thoughts on “Jesus is prohibited in public prayers

  1. The article said the following, with which I agree:

    “This is yet another instance of a “heckler’s veto,” where one hypersensitive person in a crowd is offended, and makes the whole group conform to the heckler’s demands.”

    A invocation takes at most a few minutes. If you are offended you can cover your ears or think about something else.

    I would like to point out that this is very different than public prayers in school, which could be used by the majority to enforce a certain religion on children in a forced public setting. Personally, I think we should have Bible and comparative literature classes, but not forced prayers that kids have to recite. But an invocation is very different. You don’t have to go to the public meeting, and you don’t have to listen to the prayer. Some cities have prayers, others don’t — communities should be able to set their own standards.

    And of course the worst aspect of this is that now we will have public officials censoring certain prayers and deciding what you can say in a prayer and what you can’t. This is the farthest thing I can imagine from honoring the establishment clause.

    I am open to opposing opinions on this. Personally, I try to be a civil libertarian and I want to honor the Constitution. I just don’t see how this opinion does that.

  2. There are some among us whose religious beliefs arguably require them to be offended by a public display of any other competing belief or opinion. (Militant atheism, environmentalism and certain branches of islam come to mind.) I can’t understand how any prayer can survive the standard set forth in this decision. If references to Jesus can be excluded for the reason that it gives offense to a certain individual in the crowd, why not any prayers not addressed in the direction of Mecca, or not offered to Mother Gaia or even offered at all?

    I agree with Geoff’s point regarding prayer in school. As a middle schooler in central Texas, on more than one occasion one of my teachers led the class in a prayer in which she singled me out as on the road to damnation due to my membership in the Church. This went from an invocation to speech by a state actor establishing a specific religious orientation.

  3. At the risk of offending by not being instantly offended, are we at all sure we know what this ruling covers? I mean, this particular article is not written with journalistic detachment, and instead is so obviously partisan and indignant that I wonder if there isn’t a great deal of ideological posturing going on.

    The report says that prayers are unconstitutional “if references to Jesus are more than isolated” — even this report doesn’t say that *all* mention of Jesus is prohibited. Is it possible that a prayer addressed to Jesus or closed in his name is not prohibited, and that this ruling limits only those exuberant prayers that are barely concealed sermons, invoking Jesus’s name in every clause, giving the glory to him, calling on him to direct this and control that, and bring the legislature/town council/school board to a knowledge of his sacrifice and his power and their duty to serve him, and on and on and on and on.

    I find that kind of prayer offered in behalf of a non-sectarian public body offensive, too, because I feel as though I’m being called upon to convert to the pray-er’s particular brand of (usually evangelical) Christianity, and an included in petitions to do/be/cause things that I in fact do not support, and I have an extremely difficult time saying “amen” at the end. If *that’s* the kind of prayer that is being prohibited, I have to say I understand and approve, just as I supported the decision in Texas a few years against the kind of evangelical prayers at public functions that identified Mormon kids by name, calling on them to abandon their cult and accept Jesus as their savior.

    Until I see a more level-headed report of this ruling, I’ll keep my indignation in check.

  4. I hadn’t seen Michael’s comment before making my own. *That’s* exactly the case that I referred to; I wonder if some of the so-called hecklers aren’t protesting against a very similar kind of exhortatory prayer addressed more to the non-believers present than to God.

  5. Like Ardis mentioned the case is much more complicated than the Newspaper article mentioned. In May, 2007 Forsyth County adopted a prayer policy developed by the Alliance Defense Fund. Its primary goal was to get around existing court rulings that effectively banned sectarian prayers at public meetings in the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, Virginia, Weat Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina). More specifically, government agencies were not to put in place a policy that created a situation where one sect so dominated prayers that it appeared that the agency or state was advancing one faith.

    The Alliance Defense Fund was created in 1994 by a large number of fundamental protestant ministries and groups (Coral Ridge Ministries, American Family Association, Focus on the Family, etc.). Its primary goal was and is to defend freedom of religion as they see it.

    The Alliance’s idea was to do this in a two fold manner: Who said prayer would be on afirst come, first serve basis. Thus the county would not choose what faith was represented, Second, whatever prayer that was said was a private prayer (not controlled by the state) and thus could not be regulated.

    The ACLU of North Carolina has put the court ruling in Joyner vs. Forsyth County on the net. The oral arguments are also on the net (May 11,2011 “Keeping Church and State Separate” has a link–very interesting to listen to them). The ADF and ACLU of North Carolina have numerous posts on both sides of the issue.

    This ruling is just an interpreattion of previous 4th Circuit rulings. On appeal it could go to the Full 4th Circuit and the Supreme Court. If you read the background material you will see that there are a great many issues still to be resolved

  6. This seems to provide a reason for not having public prayers. I have personally never minded Jewish prayers, Catholic prayers or any other kind of prayer, but if the way we pray offends, rather than subvert (or pervert) the very meaning and purpose of prayer, let’s just skip it. I can pray the way I want by myself.

  7. SR, yeah, that’s what went through my mind when I first read this. The reality is that balancing the issues is complex. We don’t want state-sponsored establishment of religion. It would be bad for Mormons and everybody else. But we also don’t want suppression of speech, suppression of religion and the state determining what kind of prayer is acceptable and what kind isn’t. This seems to go too far in the latter direction.

    Stan, thanks for the background.

    Aaron, I think your response is exactly the kind we want to avoid. We can’t determine public policy based on avoiding offending people. People can choose to be offended or not be offended. Of course you can pray in private, but you can also have free speech in private. The first amendment is intended to protect controversial speech as well as free expression of religious feelings, without establishing one religion as the state religion. So the real question is: does praying in Jesus’ name establish one state religion. I think the answer is no.

  8. I agree with Ardis (now that I can finally view comments) that we shouldn’t fret too much without knowing all the facts.

    However, the concept of regulating speech beynd verbal abuse is repugnant to me. The problem with prayer in school, to my mind, is a function of a state monopoly on education, not free speech.

    In other words, the issue is when someone is held hostage and forced to hear the words. Which is verbal abuse.

    Absent force, I just don’t see the need.

  9. Here is the link to the actual court document, in case anyone is interested:

    It seems the trouble in this case came when the Board invited in a special pastor and asked everyone to stand and bow their heads, after which the pastor went into a long prayer that was more of a sermon. Certainly inappropriate.

  10. Ok, my question is this…what do they do to the person who does mention Jesus in the prayer? Fine them, throw them in jail? And how does this square with freedom of speech? Honestly, freedom of religon does not mean freedom from religon. The Founders never ment our public squares to be devoid of relious talk. If anything the religiosity of Americans is what has added to the greateness of this country. I’m with Geoff on this, people need to choose not to be offended when a prayer is offered, or leave the room. Personally, I like it when public functions start with a prayer, makes it all around a better time.

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