Last week, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that the Rev. Hashmel Turner, a member of the Fredericksburg City Council, could not open council meetings with a prayer in the name of Jesus Christ. Former United State Supreme Court Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor sat on the panel as a guest judge, and wrote the opinion (click here to read the opinion).
At issue was whether government could regulate prayer. Fredericksburg councilmen traditionally take turns offering a prayer to open city council meetings. When it was Turner’s turn, he offered prayers ”in the name of Jesus Christ.” Predictably, the ACLU threatened a lawsuit, so city council changed its policy prohibiting such specificity, allowing a so-called non-sectarian praise of God, instead.
Turner and his lawyers, from the Charlottesville-based Rutherford Institute, plan an appeal to the United State Supreme Court. As Rev. Turner told The Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star, “I don’t believe the last say-so in the matter should be left up to Justice O’Connor, so I intend on going ahead to the Supreme Court.”
Here is the First Amendment in its entirety:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
According to The Free Lance-Star, Justice O’Connor wrote “that the city’s policy makes the prayers more inclusive and does not violate Turner’s First Amendment rights to free speech.”
What too many people, including, unfortunately, justices and judges, don’t seem to understand is the “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” part of the establishment clause (see a good post here from American Sentinel). While they pontificate about a “separation of church and state” which is nowhere mentioned in the amendment, they are dead silent on the non-prohibiting part, which is expressly stated. If the government, which is charged to protect free speech and exercise of faith can’t protect such practices on its own grounds, who’s to say they will protect it elsewhere?
As far as the establishment clause, so often misapplied, there’s nothing in Rev. Tuner’s prayer, nor in allowing him to pray, that establishes a state-run church. The Fredericksburg City Council is not Congress, for starters. Second, many faiths worship Jesus Christ, so that doesn’t establish a specific church, such as Southern Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc. (Sorry, ACLU, “Christian” isn’t a church, just like Islam doesn’t define all of the denominations within that faith.) Third, it would have to be one powerful prayer to create a national church in such a swoop.
In fact, the council prayer isn’t directed to the citizens of Fredericksburg or even public school students — not even Midshipmen at the Naval Academy. It’s directed to the councilmen, so that they may have the wisdom to make good decisions. They should be able to pray as they wish. It is a freedom of speech issue as much as a freedom from government mandated or written prayer as anything else. It’s funny how liberals scream government should not sanction formal prayers, such as a daily school prayer. But here’s government — the city council — going so far as to mandate the deity and phraseology Rev. Turner can reference or use (they allowed “Almighty God” and “Heavenly Father”). What forms of government do state-regulated prayer bring to mind?
It certainly is confounding how such simple and plain language is so wrongly interpreted, especially when the framers of the constitution wrote extensively and clearly about the content of the constitution. We’ll keep praying for Rev. Turner and like-minded public officials, as well as for judges to finally learn to get it right. At least as long as the government lets us.