In a world that seems relentlessly pushing toward anti-religious secularism, two recent legal developments can serve as precedents for ways public officials can promote religion as a part of state and local government.
Our nation has become so secularized that many have thrown in the towel regarding religion in public spaces. That is surely understandable. Courts especially seem to have been zealous obstructionists to any display of constitutional religion. See Meridian Magazine, “Can God Be Killed? Secularization’s Success in Contemporary America,” 2011-11-14.
Here in a nutshell are some legal ways to take back the Constitution’s promotion of religion, especially in our state and local governments.
Prayers Upheld in California and Florida Public Meetings
In California and Florida, United States federal courts held recently that local governments can commence public meetings with sectarian prayers. (In context, “sectarian” here means a prayer that closes in the name of Jesus Christ instead of just closing in the name of God.)
California City Council Public Christian Prayer Upheld
In the Ninth Federal Circuit, a prayer from the Lancaster, California City Council was upheld. The Court’s reasoning that allowed this prayer was that the prayer did not “proselytize, advance or disparage one religion or affiliate government with a particular faith.” Importantly, the Court observed that differing faiths were invited to pray.
So the idea is not a “one-size fits all” garbled prayer. The prayers have integrity, with an L.D.S. prayer followed by a Jewish prayer followed by a Catholic prayer. Why doesn’t, one wonders, the U.S. Congress move to such a system?
I recently spoke this past June at the Commencement of Wythe University where an excellent Opening Prayer was given by a Salt Lake City Presbyterian minister, followed by a Closing Prayer that was given by a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and a member of the Utah Legislature.
Florida City Commission Public Christian Prayer Upheld
In Florida, the Eleventh Federal Circuit has similarly allowed a “sectarian” prayer.
Again, diversity of faiths was emphasized, because the Florida court found as a fact that the challenged public prayers were offered from a range of Churches. (Logically, it seems to me, the religion that has the faith that God does not exist -atheism-could even be allowed time at the beginning of a meeting to say absolutely nothing.)
The three judge federal circuit panel summarized its holding in the case succintly:
The policy of sectarian prayers, the Court held, had not “resulted in proselytizing the Christian religion” because it was done against the back-drop of a practice of 25 years of Opening Prayers by Christian clergy of all Christian faiths.
Importantly, the Court found (as in California) that the City Commission of Lakeland, Florida had even adopted a resolution to bring in a more religiously-diverse group of faiths.
Good News from the U.S. Supreme Court: Relying on Almighty God Allowed in State Statute
The U.S. Supreme Court has left standing in Kentucky a state law proclaiming that:
“[T]he safety and security of the Commonwealth cannot be achieved apart from reliance on almighty God.”
The phrase occurs in Kentucky’s “Antiterrorism Act.”
A group called “American Atheists” initially challenged the constitutionality of the above-cited Kentucky law to “reliance on almighty God.” After an initial victory in a Kentucky lower state court, on appeal, a Kentucky superior court invalidated the Atheists’ lower court victory.
Here’s the nub of good news in the higher court reversal: the Kentucky higher court held 2-1 that the Kentucky state statute made but “a simple reference” to God which “acknowledge[d] religion” in what was a licit “general way.”
From its founding, America has been strengthened by the “coat of many colors” of religious diversity, a value found in our Constitution with its protections of the free exercise of religion.
Amidst on-going collisions in our culture with Secularity, here at least is some good news from judges that can be duplicated and tried in states and cities through-out America.
The Gospel requires Christians, including Mormons, to engage critically with our secularizing culture where we have the energy, talent or inclination and access to do so. In my opinion, we live in a time when these issues prompt us to express concern for our inspired Constitution itself. See Mosiah 29:12.
As the larger struggle in our culture wages on between religion and secularism, we can now briefly also celebrate the good constitutional news described above. For as Moroni knew, sharing good news can be decisive in a protracted struggle such as the one against our culture’s suffocating secularity. See Alma 53:20; 56:12; and 59:2.
Ashby Boyle is the president of George Wythe University and Meridian’s correspondent to the Supreme Court.