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"Our _____, Who Art In _____ ... Nobody Knows Your Name"

October 17, 2017

Have you ever thought about who you pray to? The name. The deity. Jabez cried out to the “God of Israel.” Daniel prayed, “O Lord, the great and awesome God….” Jesus himself, when giving us an example, prayed, “Our Father, who art in Heaven….”

The point is that, when we pray, we are communicating with God, so we call Him by His name. We are reverent. We are sincere.

It is hard to think of a practice more intimate, more to the core of a person’s religious beliefs, than the name in which a person prays. Calling to a deity is a person announcing who he believes in.

So that is why it is so odd that the government is now trying to get in the business of telling people how and to whom to pray.

Let me provide a little context. In Marsh v. Chambers, the United States Supreme Court was presented with a legal challenge to the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of permitting a chaplain to open its sessions with prayer. This chaplain, Rev. Palmer, had been hired by the Nebraska Legislature and, for 16 years, offered prayers before the legislature. According to the plaintiff, these prayers were unconstitutional because they were exclusively in the Judeo-Christian tradition, many were in Jesus’ name, and thus the prayers favored Christianity.

The Supreme Court, after reviewing all of the prayers, and after noting that the practice of legislative prayers has been going on in America since before we became a nation, found that the prayers did not violate the Constitution. The Court said,

“The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.”

So that should have settled this issue that prayers are permitted to open legislative sessions. But it didn’t. Groups like Americans United for Separation of Church and State had lost one fight but were not about to give up.  But since they could not challenge the prayers themselves, they instead attacked the deity to whose name the prayers are offered. These groups want the various town councils, counties, and state legislatures to tell people that they cannot pray to Jesus.

They want the government to tell people how and to whom to pray!

One would think that a group that calls itself “Americans United for Separation of Church and State” would not be advocating for the government to tell people how and to whom to pray.  If anything, one would think that if the town did tell people how to pray, this group would be on our side.  I mean, if “separation of church and state” means anything, it should mean that the government should not be in the business of telling people how or to whom to pray.

But that is exactly what they were asking the Town of Greece to do in the case , a case pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.

Surely, no federal court would require a government official to tell a private person how to pray. But in Joyner v. Forsyth County, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently ruled that the county’s practice of allowing prayer before its meetings was unconstitutional because it did not instruct the prayer giver on how to pray, or rather, to whom the prayer giver should not pray. According to the court, because the county failed to properly instruct the prayer givers on how to pray, many prayers were given in Jesus’ name, and thus were unconstitutional.

Attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund represent the county in this lawsuit, and we will be asking the Supreme Court to take this case and restore some consistency to the law governing legislative prayers.  We believe that the government should not be in the business of telling private individuals how or to whom to pray. This is a matter best left between the person and God. The question of whether a town council or a legislature can open its session with prayer has already been decided by the Supreme Court:  such deliberative bodies clearly can.

The issue, then, becomes, to whom should that person pray? And at the very least, the Establishment Clause should mean this – the government should not be establishing an official deity to whom it is acceptable to pray. Now that would be an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

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