Since the 1950s the Longview, Wash. City Council has opened its public meetings with prayer, as Congress has done for 239 years. But fear of a lawsuit from groups like the ACLU has caused the mayor to tell the local ministerial association that it is “not acceptable” for ministers who volunteer to give a Christian prayer that refers to Jesus.
To their credit, the ministers refused to give a generic prayer that violates the convictions of their faith.
So, for fear of an ACLU threat, city officials decided to exclude ministers simply because their faith teaches them to pray a particular way.
In 1992, the Supreme Court addressed the constitutionality of public prayer. Justice Anthony Kennedy warned that when the government dictates that public prayers must be generic or avoid references that are unique to any particular faith, like referencing Jesus, it is constitutionally problematic.
Surprised? That’s because you can’t believe everything you read in the news releases of groups that want to cleanse all traces of religion from the public square.
Kennedy explained that allowing the government to dictate the content of prayer can create a state religion and disguise religious hostility under the cloak of neutrality.
Now, some 20 years later, reports indicate that the city of Longview is foregoing Kennedy’s insight. As The Daily News reported, “‘Christ’ ban signals apparent end to Longview council meeting invocation.”
This is a mistake of constitutional proportions. Kennedy’s opinion concerned a prayer given at a public school graduation exercise, but his warning applies equally to cases challenging public invocations given before legislative meetings.
Thirty years ago, the Supreme Court decided Marsh v. Chambers, which denied an atheist’s attempt to stop the Nebraska Legislature from opening sessions in prayer. The court rejected the claim, noting that the first Congress voted to hire chaplains to open sessions with prayer three days before finalizing the wording of the First Amendment. The court wisely reasoned that finding legislative prayers unconstitutional would foolishly accuse the Founding Fathers of violating the Constitution - even as they were writing it!