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OpEdge: Christian Prayers and Public Meetings

May 10, 2014
by Marc Jampole churchstateI’m still flabbergasted at the naiveté — or perhaps lack of experience in the world — displayed by Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his majority opinion upholding the right of upstate New York government officials to say Christian prayers before town meetings. Kennedy writes that the case comes down to whether people are offended by the prayers. His widely quoted words are 1,000 percent wrong: “Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable . . . Legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.” Maybe he should have asked Jews, Muslims, or atheists what they feel. I’m quite certain that many, if not most, will tell you that they feel oppressed and assaulted by prayers that invoke Christ or a Christian god at a public or government meeting. Many also feel angry and betrayed by those allowing and enabling prayers for one religion in what is supposed to be a secular and diverse society. I personally have encountered maybe twenty situations in my life in which clergy or lay people have offered public prayers for one religion — always a form of Christianity — at a public event. Every single time, I have complained, usually joined by others. Why? A combination of a deep feeling of oppression and a disappointment that the ideals of a secular society are being trampled upon. My earliest example was when the coach of my high school football team in Miami, Florida would ask a member of the clergy to give a prayer before every game. The clergy were mostly Christian, with an occasional rabbi; it was long before the days of Islamic or Buddhist awareness. The prayers were almost always quite ecumenical, with some clergymen not even mentioning a deity. But one time, a preacher invoked Christ several times. The three Jewish members of the team (the other two of whom made All City; I was a scrub) hit the roof. We felt so angry and betrayed by our coach, an otherwise wonderful man, Frank Downey, who had actually played on the same high school football team as my father years before. Coach Downey made sure it never happened again. When you are different from the majority or from what is considered the social norm, it always feels a little bit like you don’t really belong, whether you a different color, a different nationality or a different religion. The majority culture impinges on everything — think of the hype and the displays of Christmas season, of the Christian holidays that have become national holidays like St. Valentine’s Day or All Hallow’s Eve or of the many times politicians talk about their Christian faith. Imagine being a Moslem and trying to explain to your children why you don’t exchange presents the morning of December 25. Luckily, our constitution and the First Amendment guarantee religious freedom and a secular society. I personally believe that a correct reading of the Constitution would prohibit every type of prayer before government meetings, let alone prayer to a specific deity. I suggest that Justice Kennedy try to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes for a few hours. He might change his mind about what he considers to be coercive or oppressive. Someday we will get a Supreme Court which is dedicated to interpreting the Constitution and not to completing the Reagan right-wing agenda. Maybe then, this awful Supreme Court decision will be reversed. Marc Jampole, a member of our editorial board, is the author of Music from Words (Bellday Books, 2007), a poetry collection. He is a public relations executive and former television news reporter who blogs regularly at and at his blog, OpEdge.