Telling grieving families that our thoughts and prayers are with them in times of tragedy or hearing people say “God bless the United States of America” at the end of a speech are common. They are part of our American tradition.
Culturally, it is acceptable to talk about prayer, and even ask God for his blessings in public settings, but what if it goes a step further? What if we actually pray in public — closing our eyes and bowing our heads where others can see? Is that still free in America?
The recognition of faith has been integral in the formation of America. From our nation’s earliest documents like the Mayflower Compact and Declaration of Independence, to the first act of Congress in 1774, calling on a pastor to open its sessions with prayer, to annual observances like the National Day of Prayer, America prays.
In 2001, we saw Members of Congress gather on the steps of the Capitol following the horrific events of 9/11, singing “God Bless America.” Individuals from all across the country came together at prayer vigils following tragic shootings in Newtown, Connecticut and Charleston, South Carolina. The hashtag #PrayForParis has united people from around the world following this month’s terrorist attacks in Paris, France.
As President Clinton said in his 1999 National Day of Prayer Proclamation, “Americans have united in prayer for those who died or were harmed, for the comfort and peace of their families, for the wisdom to heal our society, and for the strength to overcome such tragedies.”
Prayer in times of tragedy is not only accepted, it has become expected. If we can pray publicly in times of tragedy, can we also pray in good times as well?
When is it OK to show a public expression of faith?
Since 2008, a high school football coach in Bremerton, Washington, prayed on the field at the conclusion of the game, thanking God for his team and for keeping the players safe. Initially, the coach walked to the middle of the field alone, but later, some students voluntarily joined him. For this public display of prayer, he was placed on administrative leave.
Without question, if a coach kneeled on the sideline to pray for a hurt player, no one would criticize. But this coach chose to pray in good times and bad. Can a society pick and choose which times and places for public prayer is acceptable?
Why is praying in the midst of tragedy celebrated and encouraged, while praying in the midst of joy or thanksgiving condemned and threatened?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This provision of the Constitution has been interpreted to mean there is a wall of separation between church and state. This is true, even as Jefferson acknowledged, that the church should be protected from undue government interference in the ability to carry out one’s faith.
However, the “wall” was never intended to keep faith out of the public square. Yet, over 200 years after the founding of a nation built on religious freedom, America has become afraid of public expressions of faith, such as prayer. The separation of church and state doesn’t mean the two entities should be separate at all cost — it means one entity cannot rule over the other.
This is what makes America great, but in respecting those choices, we should not err on the side of removing all public displays of faith simply because there are those in this country that choose not to practice a faith.
Freedom of worship is confined to a place and time, while freedom of religion — our actual right — allows us to practice a lifestyle of faith, including public prayer. The free exercise of faith is a fundamental human right, not something that can only be invoked in times of tragedy.
This year, in his National Day of Prayer proclamation, President Obama said, “In America, our Nation is stronger because we protect the fundamental right of all peoples to practice their faith how they choose, to change their faith, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free from persecution and discrimination.”
To that, I say “Amen.” The question is does our nation’s actions match these words?
• Sen. James Lankford is the junior senator from Oklahoma. He serves on the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, chairing the Subcommittee on Regulatory Affairs and Federal Management. He also serves on the Select Committee on Intelligence, the Committee on Appropriations and the Committee on Indian Affairs.