The politics of prayer in public spaces

As many Americans call for more religion in public life, the question becomes: What kind of religion?

A stir surrounding the prayers at President Bush's inauguration suggests just how touchy and consequential that question is. While the president sounded notes of unity and inclusiveness, the preachers both prayed in the name of Jesus, and one asked "all who agree to say, 'Amen.' "

Many Americans have since made their distress heard in letters to the editor and on op-ed pages of local newspapers.

Alan Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School, said the prayers were "in defiance of our Constitution" and "excluded the tens of millions of Americans" who are not Christians. A Boston public-school educator wrote: "If we cannot consider a more secular prayer that is more inclusionary when praying over our nation, it would be better to remain silent."

And what about the inconsistency, others ask, between the prohibitions against public prayer in the school classroom and at football games - for reasons of separation of church and state - and prayer at the installation of the nation's top elected official.

"The debate about what kind of prayers should be offered in public settings is a long and difficult issue," says Charles Haynes, of the Freedom Forum. The Supreme Court has upheld the practice of legislative prayer on the basis of historical precedent going back to the very first Congress. Now that the US is so religiously diverse, he adds, many legislatures "try to be inclusive, either by having a variety of clergy offer prayers or encouraging those that do to do it in ways that are least sectarian."

Some feel "generic" prayers are the answer for public settings. The National Conference for Community and Justice has written guidelines for such prayer. It's commonly found at school-board and city-council meetings. President Bush's father had a nondenominational prayer in his 1989 inaugural address.

But in some faiths, how you pray determines whether the prayer is authentic, Dr. Haynes points out. One solution is that people "should pray in their own voice [using I], but not as though they are doing it for the whole audience."

For many, the answer is to have various voices represented. "If there is going to be a religious message," Haynes concurs, "it's important to simultaneously send a religious-liberty message."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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