- - Thursday, December 22, 2011

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Coming to a city or community near you will be a long, well-written, intimidating letter from an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer demanding that all public officials’ pre-meeting prayers to any specific deity be immediately discontinued. Forsyth County, N.C., commissioners received such a letter and admirably refused to comply.

Although prayers do open sessions of the U.S. House and Senate, a federal judge has found county commissioners can no longer pray in Forsyth County unless their content is “nonsectarian.” This court’s decision is based upon a narrow and mistaken interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Rightfully, this case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This case is one more misguided effort to eliminate God from the public square. Recent challenges to “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, to “in God we trust” on our money, and even to “God bless you” at veterans’ funerals in Houston have all been turned back.

The purpose of the establishment clause of the Constitution was to assure that government did not establish churches, not to eliminate God from public life altogether. The U.S. Supreme Court, addressing this kind of “legislative prayer” before government meetings said such prayers do not establish religion but rather constitute an “acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.” (Marsh v. Chambers, 1983). Amen!

The Supreme Court further said that the “content of … prayer is not of concern to judges” where it does not exploit or advance anyone, or disparage any other faith or belief. U.S. District Court Judge James Beaty argues that a mention of Jesus Christ in a prayer advances a particular faith, though other judges have reached the opposite conclusion elsewhere. This disagreement among judges is ripe for resolution by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Judge Beaty mistakenly follows only one path toward diversity or nonsectarian prayer. Another path, which the county has followed here, is inviting a variety of religious leaders to lead these prayers. Judge Beatys approach leads precisely where the Supreme Court and the Founders said courts should not go, making judgments about the content of prayers and religion.

There is more at stake here than a simple prayer prior to a county commissioners meeting. Philosophically what is at stake is standing up to the diversity winds that incorrectly seek to blow God out of any public place and a proper understanding and application of the establishment clause.

Historically what is at stake is the Founding Fathers strongly held view that a free republic requires a virtuous people, which in turn requires an active role in our society for faith and religion.

In the words of Thomas Jefferson that appear on his memorial in Washington: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?”

• Stuart Epperson is chairman of Salem Communications Corp.

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