BJC opposes official prayers during local government meetings

Opening local government meetings with prayer violates the conscience of not just religious minorities, but also of Christians who believe that worship must be voluntary, a Baptist church-state group argues in a legal brief filed in the U.S. Supreme Court.

WASHINGTON (ABP) —

“By opening a local government meeting with an exercise of religious devotion, a political assembly is transformed into a religious congregation,” said Hollyn Holl-man, general counsel for the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty. “It is be-cause of — not in spite of — the importance of prayer and religion that we object to this government assumption of religious functions.”

The BJC joined others in a friend-of-the-court brief in Town of Greece v. Galloway, opposing the practice of opening municipal meetings with prayer.

The case, scheduled for argument Nov. 6, asks the Supreme Court to decide whether a court of appeals erred in deciding that Greece, N.Y., violated the First Amendment’s ban on establishing religion by allowing private volunteer citizens to open its town board meetings with prayer.

The U.S. 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in May 2012 that because the prayers were overwhelmingly led by Christians, the practice gave the appearance that the town was endorsing one religion over others.

Parties diverse as the Obama administration and the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission filed briefs maintaining that the appellate court erred.

The federal government filed a brief in August citing the nation’s long tradition of solemnizing government meetings with legislative prayer. The government says such prayers are constitutional unless they are “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief.”

Commenting on the first ERLC brief since he took office in June, President Russell Moore said: “We shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Baptist church, I agree, but we shouldn’t have a state-sponsored Unitarian church either, and that’s what some are attempting.”

The Baptist Joint Commit-tee brief argues, however, that the government shouldn’t be in the business of deciding whether or how its citizens pray.

“Although people of faith often pray collectively — for example, in churches, synagogues and mosques — they make a voluntary decision to do so, exercising their constitutional right to form a congregation of persons who have the same approach to worshiping God,” the brief maintains. “In contrast, attendees at a town meeting have not agreed to join a government-formed congregation. They come to participate in local government, not communal prayer.”

The problem with “ceremonial” prayers, the BJC contends, is that for many Christians prayer is not something that can be reduced to a ceremony. “Rather, prayer is an act of communication with God that is profound, personal, and — crucially — voluntary,” the brief argues.

“The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment respect the individual, voluntary nature of prayer by allowing each person to worship God as dictated by his or her own conscience, and by prohibiting the government from interfering with this right,” the brief concludes. The town of Greece’s “practice of opening town meetings with a faith-specific, communal prayer violates the Establishment Clause, because it infringes the freedom of conscience guaranteed to each person.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.