Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Prayer and Public Spaces


I grew up in Houston, Texas. And though it frustrates some of my friends, I am proud to call myself a Texan. Texas is one of the only states in the U.S. that just about everyone else in the world has heard of. I don't know if this is because of the TV Show Dallas or simply because of our hubris as Texans. Or perhaps a combination of both.

They say there are three religions in Texas: God, Football and family, usually in that order. For those of you fans of Friday Night Lights, you get the sense of just how important football is both is small town and in big cities.

It is a tradition in Texas to start every high school football game off with a prayer. I know this because I was in marching band all throughout high school. Every Friday night, everyone in the stands would rise for the prayer before the game. The prayer usually asked God to help keep the players safe (which I find very fascinating because they are engaged in a game built on the premise of hitting other people really hard), and to make sure that it is a good game representative of the best values of both schools. No problem so far. But inevitably the prayer would either begin or end in Jesus name.

Eventually I stopped rising for the prayer, which led to conflicts within fellow members of my marching band. They were upset because they felt I was disrespecting their religious tradition, and I was upset because I felt the Christian emphasis at a public, non-religious event was disrespecting me as a Jew. I still feel that sting to this day. The ability to enjoy the game and be an active participant was taken from me not because I was in a church, but because I was in a stadium.

This is part of the reason why I am deeply concerned about the Supreme Court's recent ruling regarding Town of Greece vs. Galloway. The heart of the ruling according to the LA Times is, "that the Constitution does not require government-sponsored religious invocations to be 'addressed only to a generic God.' The 5-4 opinion puts the court's stamp on a trend in conservative communities to include more overtly religious references in public meetings."

As the article goes on to say, "Speaking for the majority Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said those who 'feel excluded or disrespected' by such religious invocations could simply ignore them. 'Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.'" So basically his argument is the majority rules and if a public meeting in the public interest demonstrates a commitment to a religious tradition other than your own, tough.

I feel the central argument is part of a larger false narrative which is the United States as a Christian nation. When in fact it was founded in part by Christians seeking asylum from religious persecution. Many of the founding fathers of our nation believed in God, but some were Deists, others agnostic, and some varying denominations of Christian. What they all had in common was the belief of not forcing a religion onto the population akin to centuries of tradition in Europe.

As a religionist, I have no issue with God being invoked in meetings, and I have even been invited to do my share of invocations. What I have an issue with is use of an exclusionary God which removes a minority of people in attendance. As a democratic society it is not the responsibility of the majority to force their beliefs on the minority, but instead the opposite should be true. The vast majority of Americans do believe in God and in a personal relationship with God. But how we express that is so incredibly personal, why take that away when engaged in public discourse is so beyond me.

Needless to say I am saddened by the Supreme Court's ruling. I just hope they don't say a word when a prayer in offered up in the name of Allah or Vishnu or Zeus or Satan or HaShem, because that would only make them hypocrites.

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