An Alabama Public Service Commission meeting last week began like any other: reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, reading of the agenda — oh, and a group prayer. On this particular day, APSC Commissioner Twinkle Cavanaugh invited her friend and local Baptist church member John Delwin Jordan to lead. But Jordan's prayer took a decidedly political bent near the end of its four minutes, as he laments, “God, we’ve taken you out of our schools, we’ve taken you out of our prayers, we’ve murdered your children, we’ve said it’s OK to have same-sex marriage. God, we have sinned. And we ask once again that you’ll forgive us of our sins… Everybody say Amen.” So was this a prayer or a political rant? You be the judge:
If you’re wondering whether this profession of devotion is alienating, and a potential violation of the separation of church and state, you’re not alone. In May, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case questioning whether prayers could be offered in government meetings, a staple practice in Congress and throughout states for over 200 years.
While many supporters of legislative prayer note that the practice is a long-held tradition of our country, it would do them well to remember that not all traditions in our nation’s history have been deemed constitutional. After all, much of the controversy stems from the fact that the fight for “legislative prayer” almost invariably means “legislative Christian prayer” with little regard for other religions, and asking meeting attendees to raise their hands if they “believe in the power of prayer” ignores or stigmatizes the countless atheist and agnostic individuals who simply don’t. As our nation grows more diverse, and we are forced to reckon with the fact that it is not (and never was) solely comprised of white Christian men, prayers such as Jordan’s, raise a question we should not still have to ask in 2013: Government for which people?
We run into problems when our government serves to exclude its citizens on the basis of religion, sex, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. That’s why DOMA was struck down. That’s why Roe v. Wade turned out as it did. That’s why school-sponsored prayer has been ruled unconstitutional. It’s because, no matter how fervent our beliefs, they cannot be imposed on anyone else.