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Ready, Set, Pray

For years now the Fredericksburg, Va., city council has started their monthly meetings with prayer. Working through a pre-established rotation, each council member takes a turn seeking guidance from a higher power for the council to do its work.

Council members understand that not everyone in Fredericksburg is a Christian, and consequently not everyone prays in the same way. So an agreement was reached that the prayers would be non-sectarian. In other words, the prayers would not reflect any particular theological tradition. That is until Hashmel Taylor became a council member.

Taylor is a part-time Baptist pastor in Fredericksburg. As a pastor he is well versed in the particular theology of his tradition. When it came his time to pray, Taylor prayed in the full-throated language of his Baptist heritage, including closing the prayer with “in Jesus’ name.”

This breach of protocol angered some of the other council members, and in response the chair of the council insisted that Taylor pray a non-sectarian pray when it came his turn.

But Taylor would have none of it. He believes that unless he says “in Jesus’ name,” his prayer is not a prayer. The idea that he would resort to a more generic prayer out of respect for the other religious traditions in the community was simply preposterous to him. He would pray his prayer or not pray at all.

Which was fine with the rest of the council–they simply skipped Taylor in the prayer rotation. But Taylor decided the non-sectarian prayers offered by different council members were a violation of his rights. So, he filed suit based on the First Amendment.

His argument goes like this: By refusing to allow Taylor to pray his own prayer, the council is violating his free-exercise rights guaranteed under the First Amendment. Furthermore, the council’s adoption of a non-sectarian prayer actually endorses religion, which violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause.

Taylor’s suit failed to explain how his own prayer was not also a violation of the establishment prohibition, so the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals explained it for him. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled in favor of the council’s non-sectarian prayer.

I find myself agreeing with Taylor in his view that prayer without specific content is not really prayer. Generic prayers offered at the beginning of a meeting or sporting event reduce prayer to the status of a starting gun at a horse race. The prayer is subordinated to whatever activity takes place after the prayer.

Prayer that is mere prelude is not prayer.

But I disagree with Taylor about his desire to offer a prayer rooted in a particular theology as a part of a city council meeting. Government, from City Hall all the way to the White House, belongs to all the people. Singling out one faith and giving it preferential treatment dismisses all Americans who believe differently, or who believe not at all. We forget it is not necessary to be religious in order to be an American citizen.

If the faithful folks of Fredericksburg want to pray for the city council, then open the churches an hour before the meeting and pray for council members. They might end up with better government, and better prayer lives.

But to drag prayer into the halls of government, whether fully clothed in a specific theology or stripped down for generic consumption, diminishes prayer. We take a lofty gift from God and reduce it to the level of civil ceremony.

Prayer that is mere ceremony is not prayer.

James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.