Church, state and deities

Contemporary courts and councils consistently prohibit specificity in

prayers at government meetings. Those of us offering invocations at

Newport Beach City Council meetings receive three pages in advance

detailing decisions made by courts and councils and telling us what

we can and cannot pray. I respect those who decline to offer public

prayers given these restrictions, although I have chosen to continue

to give such invocations.

On July 13, during Major League Baseball's All-Star Game, I

offered this invocation at the City Council meeting: "Wondrous God,

almighty maker of all that is, earth and sky and All-Stars and

gracious giver of all we have, send to those who lead in the mutual

regard, which forms our civic life the spirit of peace, justice,

charity, humor and wisdom that we may find with one another the

fulfillment of our common humanity; for you are gracious, great lover

of souls, and to you we give glory and honor, now and forever." (When

offering the same prayer during the 2002 World Series, after "maker

of all that is," I added "sky and sea and earth, plants and animals,

mortals and Angels ...")

These words are adapted from great prayers in my

Christian/Anglican (Episcopal) heritage, but they meet the

restrictions I was sent before I was to give these invocations.

Several years ago, before the current restrictions imposed by

courts and councils, I and senior pastors of neighboring churches

sent a letter to our City Council members saying that we were

uncomfortable being the designated pray-ers at their meetings,

suggesting that members of the council and/or their staffs offer

their prayers. The public has a right to know what the religious

beliefs of our representatives and officials are. I know that one

leader on our City Council is a faithful Episcopalian and suspect

that his words of prayer would be much like mine above. I would be

eager to learn how our other council members pray and who their God

(or god) is. I believe such diversity enriches us. Who others

perceive God to be enlightens me.

This is why I think religious leaders of many faiths should be

invited to lead public prayers and allowed to refer to the specifics

of their beliefs.

I believe there is one God who some call "Yahweh" and others call

"Allah" and still others call "Father" or "Mother." And I believe

that Jesus is the human life of our one God.

THE VERY REV'D CANON

PETER D. HAYNES

St. Michael & All Angels

Episcopal Church

Corona del Mar

I think it's reasonable that only "generic prayers" be permitted

at government meetings, given that the purpose is to invite all

members to participate in both blessing their mutual endeavors and

creating a time of reflection. Even this may not be enough because

agnostics and atheists also serve in local, state and federal

government but may be hesitant to make prayer an issue.

As a Zen Buddhist, I feel very comfortable with a liturgy

consisting of chanting the Heart Sutra followed by a silent period of

meditation, but I don't feel it would be right to insist that those

with different feelings either participate in, or witness, such a

liturgy. The purpose of government meetings is not to make people

feel uncomfortable or to evangelize but to bring people together so

the group can better function in accomplishing its task, namely that

of governing.

It's true that the majority of Americans at this time are

Christian. This doesn't mean that this majority should take advantage

of a captive audience to underscore their faith. There is much that

is needed from government. What is not needed is promoting prayers,

whether they be to Jesus or Buddha or Allah or the Sun God. I believe

the Supreme Court ruling makes a good compromise in not outlawing

prayer but insisting on a generic prayer that is more widely

acceptable.

The continuing debate on the meaning of the separation of church

and state is central to defining the path of our society. It's a

slippery slope from religious advocacy, to intimidation, to

persecution. We should protect our government spaces so that all

those who gather there can best do their jobs.

REV. CAROL AGUILAR

Zen Center of Orange County

Costa Mesa

At the inauguration of President Bush, the Rev. Franklin Graham

offered an eloquent invocation praying for national reconciliation

and the healing of political wounds. He quoted Lincoln, revered by

all Americans, praying that calmness, wisdom, humility and

encouragement be bestowed on the new president, and he envisioned a

new dawn for our country. As he prayed, I nodded in fervent assent.

Then, in conclusion, he affirmed that all of the above was sent

heavenward in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. At

that moment, the prayer recited at the ceremony inaugurating the

president of all Americans was transformed into one that not all

citizens could utter. Graham followed his father's model at President

Clinton's inauguration and continued a tradition of Christian prayer

at such occasions dating back to Roosevelt's Second Inaugural.

I do not believe that a high level of specificity is appropriate

while rendering prayers in the public square. Whether on a national

platform or in the chambers of a local council, a cleric should be

constrained by the awareness that he is not speaking within his own

faith community. In a communal setting, his charge is to uphold and

respect the religious heritage of the community; address the common

interests, concerns and values of that community; and express the

generalized faith of that community. He is to respect diversity,

strive for inclusion rather than exclusion and accept the fact that

the forum presented him is for the purpose of solemnizing, not

proselytizing.

The city council is not a Christian body or a body representing

any faith, whatsoever. Its meetings are nondenominational gatherings

in which civic responsibilities are discharged. It should not allow

advocacy of one faith as more valid than others. The council should

not assume its constituency shares the same beliefs, or offer a

platform for advancing a sectarian and religious agenda to the

exclusion and implicit disparagement of others. It should rather

adopt a strict neutrality concerning religious faiths. The invocation

should not go beyond what has been termed "American civil religion."

It rightly should be a time of reflection, invoking a Higher

Power, asking for wisdom, offering strength, calling for spiritual

assistance as the council attends to its deliberations on behalf of

all residents of the community.

All would agree that the President of the United States, as well

as the mayor of any city, town or village, should be guided by high

morals. One might well hope that every elected official could harness

the power of his faith for the public good. But though a president

rests his hand on a Bible, though he beseeches God's help, his

entering into office does not depend on his swearing fealty to the

God of scripture. The only requirement is that he will, to the best

of his ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. So it

is for our elected representatives at all levels of government. To

refer to God when gathering for the people's business has been

justified as "ceremonial deism." To refer to the God of a specific

faith-tradition and, thereby, to marginalize segments of the

population, is just plain un-civic.

RABBI MARK MILLER

Temple Bat Yam

Newport Beach

The key is between what is "allowed" and what is "required."

To eliminate the prayer of a people seeking God's wisdom in

leadership from the American political process would be the most

un-American idea I have ever heard of.

To require, however, that the prayer be offered in a particular or

even a generic name would be just as un-American and wrong. The

balance would be to allow those who wish to pray, to come and pray in

the form that they are accustomed to.

To require someone to pray generically is to force them to

compromise their religious beliefs. Very few people worship a generic

god, and they should not be required to make their faith generic to

make it socially acceptable. I have to admit, hearing a cultist pray

makes me uncomfortable. We live in America, however, and from our

beginning, we have created a covenant to "agree to disagree" in

matters of faith.

A subtle turn has happened in America in recent years. Tolerance

used to mean that I can respect the dignity of another faith system

and yet disagree with its claims to truth. Tolerance used to mean

"agreeing to disagree." Today, tolerance means I have to agree that

you are right, even though what you believe is in violation of my

core beliefs. We can disagree in the substance of truth, but not in

its validity. All truth is relative. The post-modern shift to

relative truth from absolute truth means we can all hold separate

truths as long as we accept all truths at equal validity. To be

intolerant is to reject the validity of someone else's truth.

In this environment, Jesus' claim to be the exclusive way to the

Father, forces Christians to choose between being politically correct

and believing what Jesus claimed. To force me to be generic in my

prayer would violate this claim of Jesus. I might as well quit my

job. Early Christians in the ancient Roman Empire did not accept the

plurality of gods that was being forced on them and were called

atheists for their stand.

I am grown up and American enough to be able to hear and respect

the sectarian prayers of my colleagues in this column or in any

public context. I honor their devotion and piety. I trust that as a

Christian, I would be allowed that same respect by allowing me to

pray specifically to the God I know and in his name. Generic gods

don't exist, so generic prayers become empty pious words ... Why

waste the time?

SENIOR ASSOCIATE PASTOR

RIC OLSEN

Harbor Trinity

Costa Mesa

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