Public prayer just as sincere when it’s silent

Do elected officials’ public prayers violate the separation of church and state?

That’s the question the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals is considering this week, and the answer its three-judge panel hands down could change the way town and county board meetings are conducted here and throughout the Southeast.

Rowan County appealed U.S. District Judge James Beaty’s May 2015 decision that county commissioners were violating the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause by opening their meetings with exclusively Christian prayers. Beaty wrote that the invocations make it appear the county government has endorsed Christianity. Residents with business before the board could feel coerced into following along.

Attorneys for the commissioners counter that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld public prayer in May 2013, ruling 5-4 in Town of Greece v. Galloway that a New York town council can invite local clergy to lead prayers without trampling the Constitution. Analysts say the case could turn on the distinction between a visiting pastor and a sitting commissioner.

It’s a prickly issue that pits elected leaders’ right to worship under the First Amendment’s Free-Exercise Clause against constituents’ right under the Establishment Clause to participate in local government without fear of religious discrimination.

The Galloway case was a win for advocates of public prayer, though the question of who can do the praying — and to whom he or she can pray — remains unsettled.

Previous Supreme Court jurisprudence established the doctrine of “ceremonial deism,” holding that invocations to God are permissible as part of American civic tradition, but prayers directed to Jesus may run afoul of church-state separation.

That’s a shaky compromise both sides should reject. Atheists and polytheists will take little comfort in appeals to the Judeo-Christian God, and followers of Jesus shouldn’t be content to offer vague, platitude-laden prayers stripped of specificity.

It unnerves us when councilmen, commissioners and mayors pray with liberal use of the royal “we.” With beliefs varying widely even among Christians and doctrinal fault lines carving out more than 200 Christian denominations in the United States, isn’t it more than a little presumptuous to pray on behalf of all in attendance?

City and county leaders come from all walks of life. At the ballot box, we appoint our neighbors to act as stewards of tax revenue and the lawbooks. But we don’t determine whether they’re qualified to lead us on matters of doctrine and dogma.

In our view, the best practice is to begin meetings with a moment of silence. Everyone — elected officials, government employees and members of the public — can offer personal prayers tailored to their own beliefs. Those who choose not to pray can sit in silent reflection without calling attention to themselves.

A moment of silence is not a concession to godlessness. It is an exercise that empowers the individual and challenges each believer to take ownership of his or her faith instead of passively praying along. It stresses a personal relationship with the Almighty over groupthink.

Whichever way the court rules, we prefer silent sincerity to performance-art prayer.

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