Congress, on Bended Knee

For the first time since the Civil War, members of Congress were invited to pray together in a National Day of Prayer and Reconciliation. The event was perhaps the highest-profile example yet of more Americans searching for spiritual answers to the attacks of Sept. 11.

As it was, only about a quarter of the House and Senate showed up for the private, no-press-allowed meeting, which was held Dec. 4 in the Capitol's soaring Rotunda. Even so, it ended with those congressional members on their knees, saying the Lord's Prayer together.

That scene might cause concern that the constitutional line between church and state had been crossed.

But with polls showing a surge of renewed spiritual awareness in the United States, more and more official events from schools to Congress now include some sort of prayer. And especially after Sept. 11, more people want to join in publicly religious ways to find consolation or deeper meaning.

The chaplain of the Senate should know. "I've had more discussions with people about death, fear of dying, and immortal life [since Sept. 11] than in all my years in the ministry," said the Rev. Lloyd Ogilvie (see story, page 1).

He suggests that Americans deal with any fear of terrorism by clarifying those convictions that cannot be compromised. "I really believe that Love casts out fear," he finds. "Love and fear cannot exist together."

Public prayer is not new to Congress. Ben Franklin was the first to ask for a prayer before each session. Many members join prayer groups. The Supreme Court has upheld that practice. Even the court's own sessions begin with "God save the United States and this honorable court."

The high court reads the polls and knows more Americans want public prayer. As more cases on this issue come their way, the court's nine justices are trying to fine-tune their constitutional reasoning on the separation of church and state.

Most such cases involved prayer at public schools. In its latest action, the court let stand last month a lower-court ruling that approved a Jacksonville, Fla., school board policy allowing high school seniors to elect a fellow student to deliver a "message," usually an invocation, at graduation ceremonies.

At the heart of the court's reasoning is that any public prayer cannot be done in an atmosphere of coercion, where people of one faith or no faith would be forced to hear the prayers of one religion. Anyone who would use coercion in the name of a religion might quickly be lumped in with the likes of Al Qaeda. People can only be drawn to God, not forced. Love attracts, it doesn't push.

But since student attendance at most public school events is required, the court is trying to define those circumstances where prayer would not be coersive. It's a legal frontier worth finding, but one rooted in honoring the conscience of everyone.

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