It should not be controversial to say that all citizens should be equal before the law and before the government in the United States. For instance, should government officials endorse one gender over another by proclaiming, “In this city, men are the ones who we trust to think rationally and not emotionally?” Or endorse one race or culture over another by saying, “All police should strive to behave like upper-middle-class Caucasians?”
Such favoritism should make all citizens recoil, but, unfortunately, we have an example of religious favoritism in one of our local communities. The Pismo Beach City Council has, for years, started public meetings with Christian prayers, presented by the city’s chaplain, a Pentecostal clergyman. These prayers regularly invoke “Christ” or “our personal savior” and often include quotations from the Bible. Most significantly, the prayers typically exhort listeners to follow the laws of the Christian god.
In one prayer, the chaplain said, “May we seek the Lord and obey the Bible Cause our mayor, her colleagues, and their support staff to sense your divine leadership and wisdom in each decision that they make and cause each of us, as individuals and as a nation, to repent of our sins and turn wholeheartedly to honor you and to serve you. This prayer we pray in the name of our blessed redeemer and Lord. Amen.”
This prayer implies that both the Pismo Beach government and its citizens should live their lives according to the tenets of the religion of the chaplain, Christianity.
In this country, we have freedom of conscience that government must respect. We are entitled to our own beliefs without the government telling us, in overt ways or even in subtle ways, which is the normal or right way to think. Just because the majority of people in Pismo Beach may be Christian does not justify Christian prayers at government meetings. The duty of government to treat each and every citizen equally is not something put up to a majority vote. That’s why we have the Bill of Rights in our Constitution.
Christians who think that this issue is too insignificant to bother with might change their minds if they imagined how they would feel if they had to listen to an Islamic prayer, for instance, at every City Council meeting. For some, the issue would not seem so small anymore. Also, we should not forget that large victories are often the result of many small and seemingly trivial battles. All improper intrusions of religion into government, even small ones, do their small part to erode the separation of church and state that is crucial to our constitutional system of government.
Some communities have addressed this issue by having a rotating system of invocations so that many different religions can be represented. While this does remove favoritism toward the religion of the majority, the surest way to prevent government from sending any message about religious beliefs is to have no public religious ceremonies at government meetings at all. Trying to get all religions represented can also lead to other problems, as government then is in the business of deciding which religions are authorized to give an invocation. Is Scientology a religion?
If a member of the City Council is religious and draws inspiration from prayer before a council meeting, it is that individual’s right as an American to do so. But what purpose can it serve to hold an official, sectarian prayer when the City Council, as well as citizens present at a meeting, may pray as individuals? Why should an official religious prayer be performed at a governmental meeting to begin with? It serves no goal that couldn’t be accomplished by individuals motivated to pray. Surely Christians believe their god will hear their prayers even when not government-sponsored.
Favoring one religion is favoritism. By insisting on official Christian invocations, the City Council is insisting that Christianity is the official religion. The Pismo Beach City Council should do the right thing and immediately stop the practice of having any prayer before their meetings.
Paul Rinzler is a member of the Board of Directors of Atheists United SLO, a local nonprofit which has assisted the Freedom From Religion Foundation in the lawsuit against the Pismo Beach City Council regarding religious prayers at council meetings. AU-SLO is committed to the principles of the separation of church and state and critical thinking regarding matters of religious belief, and provides a community for atheists, agnostics and those questioning religion. For more information, go to http://www.meetup.com/San-Luis-Obispo-Atheists.