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Keep prayer away from City Hall

Perhaps there is cause to take a hard look at the practice of opening

Burbank’s council meetings with an invocation. Based on recent letters to

the editor and comments made to the council, all in response to a

complaint made by a council meeting visitor, mine is not the popular

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view. I’m not fooling myself that calls for discussion will be heeded.

Rather, I expect the council to studiously avoid the subject.

Some think I wait until a number of residents have firmly taken a

stand before I come out on the opposite side, a perceived personality

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flaw that demands a contrary view. Or, perhaps it’s a tactic to cull an

otherwise unmanageable holiday greeting card list. But since the

notorious activist Irv Rubin spoke up and objected to council prayers at

a recent meeting, this is just my first chance to address the topic.

Whether attending or watching council meetings over the years, every

time council members and chamber audiences bowed their heads for a

collective prayer, I’ve been prodded by a feeling the practice is

improper. And when I’ve heard the council join in frequent blessings or

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requests made “in the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ,” I thought about

the many in Burbank for whom Jesus Christ is not Lord.

*

That pens and word processors are doubtless already busy rebutting

this column is testimony to how inflammatory the subject is. In my

experience, many are convinced that, at worst, it’s harmless to usurp the

religious beliefs of others for a brief time. But they’re deeply offended

and outraged at suggestions their own beliefs could be usurped for

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exactly the same length of time. Some “get it” even less than that. In

defense of prayer, they argue about the burdens on council members, staff

and citizens, and the enormous benefit derived on all fronts when the

community joins to ask a supreme being for help in meeting those

challenges.

Holding that a prayer or blessing is especially important given the

circumstances pretends that prayer is universally endorsed. Those

defenders of prayer in government don’t appreciate the diversity of the

community, and that it includes many who either don’t believe in any

supreme being, or who find that power somewhere other than in the sliver

of beliefs represented at council meetings. Occasionally taking a break

in the weekly parade of Christian religious leaders handling the

council’s invocation to invite a Jewish representative merely pretends

the world has only two religious camps, albeit with some subsets among

the two categories.

*

If someone accepts an invitation to my home, they do so understanding

they’ll be exposed to signs of my faith -- or perhaps a lack thereof --

just as I understand the same when I go to someone else’s home. But the

government, in this instance City Hall, is every citizen’s shared home.

And rather than making a price of entry the willingness to bend to

another’s religious beliefs, I believe the price of entry is a

willingness to absolve the government of an obligation to promote any

religion.

There are countless myths about religion and government. At this time

of year I often hear laments that public schools can’t allow religious

music at holiday programs for fear of being sued by liberal loonies. It’s

not true.

Students can and do sing “Joy to the World.” And I’m not claiming the

law forces us to gasp if someone mentions religion in City Hall. But

another myth, perhaps the most pernicious, goes something like this. “In

the United States majority rules, and most of us believe in God.”

In fact, the United States does not allow the tyranny of the majority

to rule. Rather, our government is supposed to protect the minority, in

the long run a benefit to every individual. Further, a prohibition on

government sponsored prayer does not bar individuals from praying. But a

weekly ceremony for the council has City Hall imposing a prayer on every

individual in the room or watching. Do YOU want to be the one “caught”

reading a book while the rest of the room is devoted to a prayer?

*

It isn’t necessary here to get into battles common to discussion of

prayer in public school. One need not pray before entering City Hall, or

silently to themselves inside. I expect any person could use their time

at oral communications and during any hearing for open prayer -- a

minimum of 10 full minutes for each person.

But city policy specifies an item on agenda, dedicating a portion of

the city’s business to a prayer. While that may be traditional, the

preference of city founders, and the wish of the council’s majority, I

don’t believe it’s the right thing to do.

I have spoken in the past to previous and current city officials about

this. Some have agreed. Thus far not one has dared admit it publicly --

evidence enough that there is enormous pressure to allow imposing the

religious beliefs of some on others. Perhaps this mention will see

officials grilled, another form of pressure to conform to the majority’s

religious views.

*

I’m also bothered about how some openly, unashamedly and with impunity

treat those who would oppose prayer in City Hall, or in other government

functions. It’s appalling when they speak with sneering disdain for those

who object to prayers. It is socially acceptable to publicly impugn the

character of someone who objects to government sponsored prayer.

I wish the issue had been brought up by someone other than Rubin, a

man with many views I find repugnant and wrong -- among them his charge

that a choir singing “Silent Night” to the council was illegal. But his

experience in being reviled for some views made it possible for him to

speak up when others who might agree won’t risk the firestorm. They worry

about the hostility they’d face, or that other facets of their agenda

would suffer because they took an unpopular stand. Of course, like me,

they may also dread that, in trying to express an earnest opinion,

they’ll clumsily, unintentionally offend someone.

Knowing how many disagree with me, and how vehemently, I don’t relish

the potential for angry responses. But if one is going to disagree with a

vehement group, I suppose there are groups more dangerous to disagree

with than people who are devoutly committed to prayer sponsored by City

Hall.

Will Rogers’ column appears in every edition of the Leader. He can be

reached 24 hours a day at 241-4141 voice mail ext. 906, or by e-mail at

WillColumn@aol.com.


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