In Theory: Is Christian prayer fair game at council meetings?

The Obama administration has surprised its supporters and some in the Republican party by agreeing that town councils should be allowed to open meetings with a Christian prayer.

Several towns across America have been taken to court and lost cases brought by those who believe that beginning a political meeting with prayer violates the Constitution, and that if Christian prayer is allowed, then other religions should be represented, too.

The Conservative Family Research Council said of the decision, “It's gratifying that even the Obama administration recognizes that courts are not qualified to censor prayers.” But Americans United for Separation of Church and State said, “A town council meeting is not like a church service, and it shouldn't be treated like it is.”

Q: What's your take on this issue?

These town council meetings, indeed even city councils and state and national legislatures should be allowed to open with prayer in ways that are acceptable to those bodies and representative of its participants. It makes sense for a representative form of government to include expressions of faith that “we the people” sincerely follow. To officially ban prayer from such public events is to effectively and exclusively establish atheism — which is in fact a particular religious philosophy. And we’ve never called ourselves “one nation under no god.”

When these prayers are offered everyone present realizes that members of the public hold numerous and often contradictory views about God. I understand and accept that fact that I might not be able to say “Amen” to the prayer offered, or at least to most of it. In fact, I’ve heard city council invocations given that weren’t really prayers at all in my understanding of actually speaking to God. 

But when we’re grown up enough not to be offended by the fact that our fellow citizens practice a faith dissimilar to our own and we “accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God” (Romans 15:7) then we will be able to fully enjoy the freedom our founding fathers fought so hard to establish.

Pastor Jon Barta
Valley Baptist Church


As a clergy member who is frequently asked to give invocations at meetings, I am always careful to be inclusive in my language — not because of a law but in order to be respectful of the religious beliefs of others. In fact, several of the groups for which I have provided invocations, one of them a city council, have requested that I keep my language nonsectarian. And I have been happy to comply. An invocation is not about my beliefs. It is a blessing for the productive work of the group. So I am perplexed at the need that some have to impose their own language on the efforts of others.

We are a country where people of diverse religions reside and work. So I believe that asking people not to use their own theological language in an invocation is the proper thing to do. The idea that each person could be invited to speak from his or her tradition in proportion to the population seems unduly cumbersome and potentially unfair to all. I believe it is much more equitable to have all speakers adhere to the same standards of religious neutrality.

There is a reason why our country’s founders, particularly deist Thomas Jefferson, included the idea of separation of church and state in our Constitution and why it has been supported by numerous laws and court decisions since then. That reason is so that all people can have the right to practice religion in their own way. When a particular religion predominates in public events, there is the implication, whether intended or not, that it is the state sanctioned one and that others are less acceptable. We should all be free and encouraged to practice religion in our own communities of worship, and I hope that we will not let our use of religious language get in the way of our working together for the public good.

The Rev. Dr. Betty Stapleford
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo Hills
La Crescenta


One of the things about America’s founding is that everyone involved was either Christian or Christian sensitive (the deists come to mind, few that there were). They all quoted the Bible, they all believed in God’s providential care, and none were of other religious persuasion. No other religious belief system was held among the Pilgrims at the first Thanksgiving; none were counted among our founding fathers of the Continental Convention, and in greatest proportion, Christians were responsible for America’s schools and hospitals and other moral-cultural enterprises. The Bible has been the book of oath for all offices and legal proceedings until modern times, and the biblical God has been the perpetually named motivating factor; for every important endeavor, our requested ally.

As a Christian American I’m more than happy that Christian prayer is now deemed permissible in governmental councils, since a veritable war against anything Christian seems to be waging by those brash enough to deny our creator and national caregiver. There’s only one real God, and if we reject him or equate him with any other, we only tick him off and invite his judgment. Is there any god but the god of Jesus Christ? No!

So what of prayer to God in councils? If God is real, he should be invoked (as we are his subjects) and everything, including our governance, is his. The best-case scenarios would be where every council member professed Christianity. In places where they will not, and object, it will be problematic. I wouldn’t pray if false deities are invoked, and I imagine those who worship them would not say “Amen” to my prayers in Jesus’ name. Still, God is not neutral, he is not our nameless energy ball in the sky, but the triune center of the universe. His take, not mine.

The Rev. Bryan Griem
Montrose Community Church


The United States is not a Christian nation. It is a nation with citizens who are predominantly Christian. The U.S. is not a Christian theocracy; it is a pluralistic democracy with citizens of many faiths. This is an important distinction. It is a fundamental and foundational principle of our nation laid clear in the1st Amendment that states, in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

“Establishment” is the key word as it relates to the question at hand. But also central to addressing this week’s question is the concept of the “spirit of the Constitution.”

If townships, cities, etc., began their civic/government meetings with an interfaith prayer, respecting people of all faiths who believe in God or a higher power, this does not, in my opinion, violate the letter or spirit of the 1st Amendment, nor the Constitutional rights of atheists. But allowing these same meetings to start with explicit and exclusively Christian prayer crosses the Constitutional boundary and the spirit that government shall not “establish” a religion.

Practically speaking, if my local city council started meetings with a Christian prayer (or a prayer from any other faith), and if my elected representatives held rigid to the view that it should remain religiously exclusive, it would have a chilling effect. As an American, do I count less because I am Muslim or Jewish or Buddhist or Hindu? And what am I to think of the laws and ordinances created by these city councils? Are they from a Christian point of view? Does it start with an innocuous opening prayer but then slowly seep into law? The slippery slope of “establishment of religion” begins, and it can quickly become the source of a divided community.

Omar S. Ricci


Like many, I am concerned by efforts to limit the practice and visibility of religion in public life in the U.S. We all benefit from the sincere prayers of faithful people and as a church we believe prayer is vital as a means of finding comfort and solutions.

This being the case, I have no personal objection to the use of prayer to open a meeting. I would like to see the Supreme Court rule in favor of it. However, I am not sure that public prayers are absolutely necessary, especially in communities where such prayers become a source of contention. Government officials and citizens who seek the Lord’s influence over government processes are free to ask for his blessing in private prayer before the meeting begins. Their goal still would be achieved and unnecessary contention would be avoided.

The tradition of public prayer at official government events stems from a time when the U.S. viewed itself as a country comprised overwhelmingly of practicing Christians. The population has changed and we can no longer assume this point of view.

Certainly, when public prayer is practiced, the list of those invited to offer invocations should not be limited to a particular faith. According to some reports on the Greece, N.Y. case, the city did occasionally invite non-Christian clergy to pray. A consistent rotation would be more appropriate.

Michael White
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints
La Crescenta


When it comes to the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state,” strong cases are often made for opposing views by carefully cherry-picking history. Adherents of total separation between all religious practices and the public forum are quick to point out that the Constitution itself makes no mention of religion.

However, at the time the Constitution was drafted, many states had an official Christian denomination that often received public funds and controlled the licensing of ministers. In fact, it was Thomas Jefferson’s decision to defend a Baptist preacher, imprisoned for preaching without a license in Virginia, which led to the concept of separation between church and state.

Jefferson’s famous term “wall of separation,” appeared in a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist Church on Jan. 1, 1802. Several days later, he attended church services in the House of Representatives at the Capitol. Throughout his presidency church services were routinely held in Congress, at the White House and in a host of executive branch buildings. As President in 1802, Jefferson required that Washington schools use both the Bible and a Christian hymnal as everyday texts. Apparently he did not see any of these actions as a breach of the “wall of separation.”

Throughout our history religious rituals and services have permeated the public forum in a variety of ways. Historically, the free exercise of religion in public places was never considered a violation of separation between church and state. Instead of declaring public prayer unconstitutional, I think it is more consistent historically to permit such prayers. I do think that they should reflect the various religious groups represented in a given community.

Pastor Ché Ahn
HRock Church


While I am not familiar with practices in neighboring Burbank and Pasadena, I have attended Glendale City Council meetings at which Jewish, Muslim and Latter-day Saints clergy have prayed. It is good that non-Christian faiths are represented, but omitting prayers would be better.

I agree with Americans United for Separation of Church and State that a government meeting is not a church service. In my opinion religious content in a government setting is a violation of our Constitution's establishment clause even if a diverse array of spiritual viewpoints are represented.

Values are a key criteria in selecting our elected representatives, and believers can regard religion in their ballot decisions.

Officials and citizens are free to privately call on divine aid at any time. Involving everyone by publicly invoking an imaginary presence at government meetings is alienating to many and serves no useful purpose.

I am very happy that the United States is not a theocracy. Things do not seem to be working out that well for countries whose religion and government are blended. Let's not go there.

Roberta Medford

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