A prayer for all seasons, or none - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

A prayer for all seasons, or none

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Mark J. Scarp is a contributing columnist for the Tribune. Reach him at mscarp1@cox.net.

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Posted: Saturday, December 17, 2011 8:00 am

Unlike many other nations, in this country you can pray without the benefit of someone from the government handing you a script of what to tell God.

So when the governor proclaims a day of prayer, is that government interference in our liberties, or is it simply an exhortation to voluntarily pray for our country, our people and our leaders?

Government as church was an idea Americans rejected early on, and for good reason: Uncle Sam has never proved he is any closer to heaven than anyone else. The humorist Will Rogers once observed that all he could say for the U.S. Senate was “that it opens with a prayer and closes with an investigation.”

An effort to have a proclamation of a day of prayer in Arizona — we’ve also seen them proclaimed by East Valley cities — declared unconstitutional was tossed out of federal court this past week. While most of us would hope that our leaders would have more complex problems to tend to, this ruling demonstrates that Gov. Jan Brewer’s proclamation about prayer doesn’t really interfere with our lives and choices.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation brought the suit. Its leaders are thinking over an appeal on First Amendment grounds. But is such a proclamation a First Amendment issue?

It’s American to pray and worship freely without government officials telling us how, or whether to do either. It’s also American for our political leaders, especially in difficult times, to invite us all to pray. Presidents since Washington have done it. A paradox? Not really.

As Capitol Media Services reported in the Tribune, U.S. District Court judge Roslyn Silver ruled last week that exhortations for the public to pray are legal, so long as they are general in nature and don’t make us go out of our way to avoid a certain expression of religious belief we may not agree with.

The case involved Brewer’s inviting Arizonans to a day of prayer, to pray at a certain time on a certain date. There is no penalty for not joining in these events or even to pray at all.

Brewer isn’t alone. Many cities, including several here in the East Valley, have for years been making a formal invitation to citizens to pray on a certain day each May, some staging public gatherings for that purpose. You may have been among most people who missed them, which is kind of the point: Government intrusion, by definition, has to be in somebody’s face to actually be intrusion.

The report in the Tribune said Judge Silver ruled that foundation members lacked standing to even attempt to raise the usual arguments about government establishing a religion in violation of the First Amendment. In other words, they just weren’t denied anything.

Of course, we are of two minds about this subject at times. We don’t want the government telling us when or how to pray, but we also believe that it’s a terrific idea for our children.

Results of four Gallup polls taken in 1994, 2000, 2001 and 2005 show between 73 and 78 percent of Americans favored a constitutional amendment allowing for voluntary prayer in public schools. Of those in favor, only about 1 in 4 prefer some form of spoken prayer; 7 in 10 say it should be silent prayer or a moment of silence.

As Americans we should always be wary of any action of government that would serve to, as the First Amendment says, “establish” religion.

And while we need to be mindful of the power of government to wrongfully intrude on our liberties, we should also recognize that non-legally binding proclamations are nothing more than an elected official exercising that other First Amendment right, of free speech.

In a May 2010 editorial, the Los Angeles Times recalled a 2000 decision by a California Superior Court judge involving praying before City Council meetings in Burbank that got too specific and was therefore unconstitutional.

“Ruling on prayers before Burbank City Council meetings that used the phrase ‘in the name of Jesus Christ,’ the court said that invoking a deity specific to one religion implies an endorsement of that religion by the city government. Ecumenical prayers are thus considered kosher; denominational prayers are not.”

Silver’s ruling is correct. Brewer’s proclamation, like those in East Valley cities, sufficiently lacks specificity, as it speaks only about a general deity. It fails the in-your-face test of government “establishment of religion” banned by the First Amendment.

We live in a country where government is not allowed to tell us how to express faith, even though it may generally give us an opportunity to express it somehow. The state of Arizona wanted it to be via a day of prayer in May.

The department stores want it to be through the purchase of lots of electronics in December.

Read Mark J. Scarp’s opinions here on Sundays. Watch his video commentaries at evtnow.com/scarp. He can be reached at mscarp1@cox.net.

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