My Turn: Republicans overboard on prayer resolution
As a longtime Republican and practicing attorney and former Rowan County judge, I read with interest and alarm the text of the prayer resolution proposed by our representatives to the General Assembly. It may be time to get out the life rafts and rescue them from drowning in the Sea of Confusion!
Now, mind you, I’m sympathetic with our commissioners on the subject of prayer, though not in every detail.
As the U.S. Supreme Court has observed again and again, Americans are a religious people. One of our glorious inheritances is religious liberty. Everyone is free to believe what he will and to worship God as he sees fit.
Understanding the U.S. Constitution is, unfortunately, not a simple undertaking. The First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment have to be read together along with the U.S. Supreme Court cases applying those amendments to particular controversies. The Fourteenth Amendment in essence says that what the federal government is forbidden to do, the state governments and their political subdivisions (i.e., counties and cities) are also forbidden to do. Therefore, what Congress may not do on the national level, the General Assembly may not do on the state level, and the Rowan commissioners may not do on the county level. The U.S. Supreme Court has so held for over 70 years, at least back to the Cantwell case in 1940.
The resolution proposed by our state legislators unfortunately aims to turn the clock back to the old Southern Democrats and their pre-Civil War arguments for secession, arguments they used again to defend segregation. What is more embarrassing for this Republican attorney is that they do not seem to recognize that fact.
As to the commissioners’ prayers, the Supreme Court is not so unfriendly to prayers before deliberative governmental bodies as the commissioners may think. The court has upheld the practice of opening state legislative sessions with prayer on the historical ground that the very men who drafted the First Amendment in the First Congress (1789) hired a chaplain to pray in the U.S. House. If prayers are acceptable in the U.S. House, then under the Fourteenth Amendment they are acceptable in the General Assembly, and it follows logically that prayers opening commission meetings should be lawful.
But then the next question is: What exactly is a prayer? We Christians believe that authentic prayer should be uttered in the name of our Lord. As St. Paul wrote so beautifully in his letter to the Philippians “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” But not all Rowan citizens are Christians, nor can any level of government make them so under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
The ACLU goes much further than this and often argues there should be no reference of any kind to God (or any god) in any public governmental meetings. Here they follow a separate line of Supreme Court cases holding that government must be precisely neutral between religion and irreligion. But the court has ruled otherwise about what it calls “legislative prayer.”
The attorney hired by the commissioners to defend them in the ACLU lawsuit is correct that there is a split between some of the federal Courts of Appeals. The Fourth Circuit holds that prayer at commission meetings must not be “sectarian.” Other federal Courts of Appeals have upheld prayer policies much like the one the ACLU challenged in Forsyth County. That policy required the clerk to the Board of Commissioners to invite every minister, pastor, priest, rabbi and any other identifiable religious leader in the county to volunteer on a first come, first serve basis to open commission meetings with a prayer. The commissioners only requested that any prayer offered “not be exploited as an effort to convert others” nor “to disparage any faith.” So there may in fact be a disagreement between the federal appellate courts over whether prayer before commission meetings may be sectarian or not. Probably all the federal courts do agree that the elected officials themselves (for they “are” the government) should refrain from sectarian prayer.
Finally, let me suggest that our commissioners ponder the examples of our two greatest presidents, Washington and Lincoln. Both of these indispensable men saw a Providential Hand at work protecting our republic. Washington addressed the Creator using words such as “the Great Author of every public and private good,” the “Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men,” “that Almighty Being” and “the benign Parent of the Human Race.” Lincoln often spoke of “Almighty God,” “He, from whom all blessings flow,” “our Heavenly Father” and “the care of Divine Providence.” Our commissioners might easily consider these forms of addressing Our Creator and remain well within the law of our Constitution and Courts.
Ted Blanton is a Salisbury attorney and former District Court judge.