In expressing the majority’s decision that the town of Greece, N.Y., is constitutionally permitted to begin its meetings with prayer, Justice Kennedy said something I agree with. Not the opinion as a whole, just one thing:
“Even seemingly general references to God or the Father might alienate nonbelievers or polytheists,” he writes.
He’s right. Years ago, growing up Jewish in a small town in Virginia, I would have cared more about blatantly Christian rhetoric. I heard a lot of public prayer back then, and I used to hold my breath against the inevitable “in Christ’s name we pray” that preceded the “Amen.” That’s what the women who originally brought suit against the Town of Greece were after: not to eliminate the opening prayer, but to make it generic and therefore inclusive.
Now, as an atheist, I realize that no religious prayer, no matter how “generic,” is inclusive. I can tell because it doesn’t include me. Or my husband. Or my kids.
Justice Kennedy argued that since we can’t come up with totally inclusive prayer, we’re going to have to . . . permit the obviously exclusive kind. Seriously, that’s the way his logic worked.
Here’s a fun game: read his opinion yourself while trying to keep the innocent question, “Why not no prayer?” from popping into your head. Kennedy doesn’t answer that question; he just goes on about the fact that prayer serves to “unite lawmakers in their common effort” even though he just argued that no prayer is common to all and that people who don’t like the prayer can always leave the room. While feeling super united, I guess.
“Why not no prayer?”
I know, I know, it wasn’t the case at hand. The suit was far more modest than that; it accepts the basic premise that prayer before a town meeting is worthwhile—or at least appropriate. And to be honest, I understand why people want to pray at the beginning of public events. I understand wanting to express a sense of communal purpose, and to consecrate the place and time. Words have the power to do that.
But do they have to be religious words?
Let’s say 14 citizens thought it worthwhile to leave the comfort of their couches to sit on folding chairs in a chilly town hall. Fourteen citizens took the time to speak or vote or bear witness under fluorescent lights. There must be ceremonial language that does justice to all of them—no matter what their beliefs about God. There must be language that can solemnize the decision each made to participate in the public sphere.
It could start simply, so no one gets too embarrassed. Maybe the Town Clerk or the Chair of the Zoning Board would stand.
Good evening, and welcome to the [date] meeting of [name of governing body]. We gather as citizens and stewards of [name of municipality] to work together on behalf of this [town, city, etc], . . .
Enter a bit of ceremony:
to honor its past, improve its present, and prepare for its future.
Finally, the prayer:
May a spirit of cooperation guide our discourse tonight, and may our efforts be ennobled by wisdom and courage.
Guess what two-syllable word signifies fervent assent, but not necessarily religious belief?