In a remarkable 2-1 split decision, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals (which presides over the four states of the Carolina’s and the Virginias) invalidated the policy of Forsyth County, NC that allowed prayers to be offered before meetings of the County Council. The court acknowledged that the county policy was “neutral and proactively inclusive.” However, the policy was struck down in part because the court showed a fundamental misunderstanding about the purpose of prayer.
The decision is troubling on many fronts. It is out of step with many other federal courts that have considered the validity of public invocations, including the United States Supreme Court. It ignores the religious heritage and history of our nation. But more troubling is the impact of the court’s decision on prayer itself. The court decision ignores a key purpose of a public invocation. It requires the government to censor private prayers and engage in comparative theology. The majority opinion punishes a county for the demographic make-up of the community and signals to people from many faith traditions that their prayers are not welcome.
In a series of short blogs I will explore some of the troubling aspects of the decision in Joyner v. Forsyth County, NC decided on July 29, 2011.
The majority opinion decided that legislative prayer is about “acknowledging the ways in which it can bring together citizens of all backgrounds and encourage them to participate in the workings of their government.” This is a fundamental misunderstanding that confuses a potential incidental benefit with a purpose. It may be that a prayer can highlight public virtues and laud a common ethic that encourages others to act, but that is not its purpose. If that were the purpose, it would not be a prayer at all. It would be an exhortation or motivational encouragement targeted to those within earshot. Rather a prayer is a petition to God. The intended audience of a prayer is the deity to whom the prayer is offered, not the human audience.
A public prayer is intended to beseech God for guidance and blessing. The majority opinion reduces prayer to a civil nicety or a tradition void of any religious significance. That is not at all what the founders of this nation thought about prayer. The purpose of public prayer can be encapsulated in the following account:
During the Constitutional Convention the delegates were at an impasse. On June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin suggested the congress pray for guidance. He retold how the Continental Congress had asked for divine aid at the start of the Revolutionary War.
“Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered,” he said. “And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, sire, a long time, and the longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth: that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
In the past four years, five different federal court cases have upheld public invocation policies like the one adopted Forsyth County. The decision of the 4th Circuit is out of step with these other federal courts and out of step with the U.S. Constitution.
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