We should ignore the Supreme Court’s permission to pray

Hoover Schools Superintendent Andy Craig and members of the Hoover Board of Education bow their heads in silent prayer before Monday night’s. The board hadn’t held a prayer before a meeting in four years, but did so Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled prayer before public meetings were constitutional. (Jon Reed/jreed@al.com)

Conservatives are still celebrating a recent Supreme Court ruling that permits prayers at the start of city council meetings to mention the name of Jesus Christ rather than just general terms like god, lord or creator.

“Americans are free to pray,” said David Cortman, an attorney who argued on behalf of a New York town that was sued because its public meetings began with mostly Christian prayers.

That’s nice to hear, but were we ever not free to pray?

Our freedom of worship and our liberty to publicly pray are natural rights that weren’t invented by our Constitution, and they certainly cannot be regulated by the government it established. Simply put, the Supreme Court has no jurisdiction over this part of our lives; therefore its ruling on the matter should be ignored.

But instead of stating that courts have no right to meddle in the prayers of free people, the Supreme Court said we’re kind-of-sort-of-free to say some types of prayers at some types of public forums. They said it’s okay to begin a city council meeting with a brief ceremonial prayer that mentions Jesus Christ, but it isn’t okay for that prayer to denigrate non-Christians or attempt to win converts. That sounds reasonable, but in this era of hyper-sensitivity, what counts as denigration? Who knows, but it’s probably illegal to quote John 14:6 at a public meeting in the United States of America. (“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”)

Worse than the ruling was the way many of us celebrated its announcement. Our joyful acceptance added legitimacy to the notion that we must seek government approval before we pray at meetings of our elected officials.

Most people believe that the courts have a right to decide this sort of question. I believed it myself, until my happy reaction after the ruling struck me as somehow wrong. If we’re celebrating that five of nine lawyers affirmed our right to pray, I realized, then we’ve already lost much more than whatever win this ruling could be spun to describe.

Prayer should never be regulated, and we shouldn’t submit to regulation even when it appears to turn in our favor.

What we should do is pray according to our conscience. Our elected officials should use their best judgement when praying, or selecting someone else to pray, at our public meetings. If people don’t like their decisions, then they can settle the score at the ballot box. The people are the best judge of what’s appropriate, not the courts.

Of course there are limits. One cannot disrupt public meetings or threaten people, but there are already laws against such actions and they regulate public behavior in general, not public prayer specifically.

We can all help by simply being polite and a little less sensitive. People holding the honor of praying before a public meeting should consider the occasion, and think about whether their words point to Jesus or to somewhere else. On the other hand, if you don’t share the beliefs of someone praying, be considerate of their rights. Your freedoms are only as strong as their freedoms, and if you don’t like what they’re saying, just don’t listen. That’s how free people maintain their liberties without coming to blows.

There’ll always be trouble makers and people who find offense in everything, but we shouldn’t allow them to lower our common denominator of freedom to perilous degrees. We should push back. That also goes for the haters; those skeptical voices who use charlatans to cast suspicion on everyone else, as if they’re the only genuine people in a room full of frauds.

The fact is we do indeed need to pray before city council meetings, if anywhere. Asking for guidance before taking action that impacts people’s lives is wise. To think otherwise is arrogant.

Meanwhile, we shouldn’t make any laws — either from the legislature or the courts — that regulate the free exercise of public prayer. Come to think of it, I seem to recall reading something similar in an old document somewhere. I wonder if they have a copy of it at the Supreme Court.

(J. Pepper Bryars grew up in Mobile and is now a writer living in Huntsville. Contact him at jpepperbryars@gmail.com and jpepperbryars.com.)