March 14, 2020

Prayer Has No Place in Government Meetings

committee room

Opening the meetings of various governmental bodies with prayer is inappropriate, exclusionary, and blatantly unconstitutional. It represents an abuse of power and is a transparent attempt to advance a religious agenda, even if it is only one of pushing some generic god belief. This practice is even worse than the National Day of Prayer nonsense because government meetings are where important decisions are made. No person present at such a meeting is prohibited from silently praying (as the Christian bible would seem to endorse), and so there are no viable reasons to formalize prayer by making it part of either the official agenda or a required custom. Atheists across the U.S. should be prepared to challenge this practice, not to stamp out religion but to separate it from the halls of power.

We could select many reasons why prayer does not belong at government meetings, but the one I'd like to mention here is the impact of this practice on everyone present who does not believe in whichever gods are being referenced or even to the god concept itself. Prayer in this context communicates many things, including a clear sense that anyone who lacks god-belief is an outsider to the process. Government officials, whether they like it or not, are supposed to represent all of us. It is okay for them to be religious; it is not okay for them to use their positions to promote their religion or even religiosity in general.

As Austin Cline wrote (update: link no longer active),

There is ultimately only one reason for such prayers: to have the government endorse, support, promote, and/or encourage the religious beliefs of one group of citizens over and above the beliefs of all other citizens. Apparently, some religious believers — and they always turn out to be Christians, don't they? — are unable or unwilling to keep their religion a matter of personal faith. Instead, they need for their religion to be sponsored in some way by the government.
He's right, and that is one of the things the Establishment Clause is supposed to prevent.

Just how widespread is the practice of including prayer at official government meetings? From what I have been able to gather, it seems to be far more common than most of us probably realize. We see it at the federal level in the U.S. Congress itself, at state legislatures across America, and in too many local government meetings to count. It is pervasive, and too many of our courts have looked the other way. I suppose that is what privilege buys.

I do not buy the claim that some of our courts have made that these prayers are somehow symbolic and void of any religious significance. If that was the case, those who insist upon them, would not fight so hard to maintain the practice. I also reject the claim from some atheists that this is a trivial issue not worthy of our attention. I'd agree that it is not the most important issue facing us, but it is a practice that needs to stop and most of us are capable of paying attention to more than one thing.

An early version of this post appeared on Atheist Revolution in 2009. It was revised and expanded in 2020.