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Preying on cities that offer prayer at meetings to get their point across

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POSTED October 3, 2009 2:16 a.m.
Congress opens each day with a prayer and – quite frankly – there has been no sign of divine providence setting anybody in that neck of the woods on the straight and narrow.

The congressional opening prayer – much like the invocations at numerous council meetings up and down the valley including Lodi, Manteca and Turlock to name a few – meet the 1983 litmus test that the United States Supreme Court handed down. In short, the court said it was constitutional to have prayers at government meetings as long as the prayer wasn’t used to proselytize. Adding to that was a 2nd District Court of Appeals ruling in 2002 that determined prayers at city meetings could contain references to God but mentioning the name of Jesus Christ was a no-no.

It’s been a tradition for decades in Manteca to make a blanket request through the Manteca Ministerial Association for volunteers from their ranks to offer the innovation at the twice monthly council meetings. Manteca Mayor Willie Weatherford said he’d personally have no problem opening up the offer to include other faiths that weren’t members of the ministerial association. He noted the issue has never come up and no one has complained, which is true.

There is a reason why no one complains in Manteca. Listen to the prayers sometime. The ministers – realizing they aren’t doing the prayer as a way to advance a specific religion but to encourage the community to come together – virtually always make a reference to some event where people are in harm’s way or suffering and almost always asks for those people doing the city’s business and debating issues find the strength to seek solutions.

No one is coerced – even by group pressure – to even bow their heads and definitely not to repeat the closing words that come with amen.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation routinely makes forays into valley towns in a bid to silence prayers although in Lodi their target was to ban all mentions of Jesus Christ from prayers uttered at public meetings.

To the credit of ministers offering prayers at Manteca City Council meetings they all take the big tent approach. In fact, the Manteca Ministerial Association is a vibrant organization that works in unison for community needs such as establishing and helping fund three local homeless shelters regardless of whether those needing help are religious (Christian, Hindu, Muslim or otherwise), agnostic or atheists.

Manteca doesn’t have a written policy against using the word “Jesus Christ” in the prayers that ministers use at the start of council meetings. Various court decisions- although not the ultimate authority for secular legal issues in the United States that is in the form of the U.S. Supreme Court – have weighed in against using the name Jesus Christ in a prayer at government meetings.

If the Freedom from Religion Foundation wanted to make headway for their position instead of cherry picking places out in the provinces, so to speak, they should go after Congress. What the foundation really wants is to completely ban all prayers at government meetings. So the way they figure they can accomplish that goal with the highest court side-stepping the issue several times is to bully the little guys one by one across the land.

The “crime” of invoking Jesus Christ’s name is intriguing considering what the foundation is doing is what their most adherent followers believe the courts are doing by not outright banning public prayer – forcing people to comply to de facto “thought police” since the government is an authoritarian part of our society.

What they are doing is worse. They are trying to chill speech even though they are specifically dealing with the words uttered. The highest court allows prayer at government meetings but without proselytizing. It is clear that the ministers in Manteca – and probably elsewhere – are complying with that. It is the lower courts through organizations such as the foundation that read more into the words “Jesus Christ.”

The day they give me an example of someone being forced to submit to Christianity as the result of an invocation at a government meeting is the day I’ll side with them.

It is not that the prayer offered is meaningless – it’s not. It is a sincere expression of values. The prayers, though, are always so broad and stress giving the community and its leaders the grace and wisdom to deal with challenges that they definitely do not promote one religion over another.

If the Freedom from Religion Foundation really wants the spirit and letter of the high court rulings followed, then they should encourage all religions to have their leaders step forward to offer prayers at government meetings.

That, however, is not their objective. They don’t want compliance with court rulings regarding prayer content. Their ultimate goal is eradication of all prayer at government meetings.

It is akin to making your point by whacking a fly not with a flyswatter but with a sledge hammer.

Prayer is allowed. They need to get over it and only act on those cases where someone steps up to use the podium at council meetings as a bully pulpit for their religion.
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