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Americans United
of
San Antonio
P. O. Box 100806
San Antonio, TX 78201-8806

 
Board of Directors
 
Eric F. Lane, President
Joe Brake, Vice-President
Philip T. Valente, Secretary
Richard C. Waits, Treasurer
Nick Lee
Rhett Smith
R. J. Fields, Jr., Web outreach
 
Board Meets every 3rd Monday
6:00 P.M.
 
2803 Fredericksburg Road
San Antonio
[inside the gates of the
Primrose at Monticello
Park Senior Apartments]
 
Meetings are free and
open to the public
 
General Assembly
7:00 P.M.
3rd Tuesday of
Jan., Apr., July, & Oct.
Location TBA

 What's Wrong with the National Day of Prayer?


By Eric Lane


The National Day of Prayer (NDP) is not historical.  It was created by Congress in 1952 during the anti-communist hysteria that gripped our nation.  The scheduling of the event used to change but it was codified by Congress in 1988 (after pressure from the Religious Right) as the first Thursday in May.  This year the event takes place on May 1.


One of the reasons Americans United for Separation of Church and State objects to the NDP is that the National Day of Prayer has become a vehicle for spreading misinformation about American history and society.


In recent years, most NDP activities have been coordinated by the “National Day of Prayer Task Force,” an organization based in Colorado Springs and run by Shirley Dobson, wife of Religious Right radio broadcaster James Dobson.  They have used the NDP to promote bogus “Christian nation” history with the purpose to convince Americans that the founding fathers intended to establish this country on ‘Biblical principles.”  This simply is not true.


The greatest gift the Founders bequeathed to us is the separation of church and state.  It is what ultimately makes us truly free.  With the ratification of the Bill of Rights on December 15, 1791, for the first time in human history, the right to follow the dictates of one’s own conscience was made into law.  No longer would citizens have to follow the dogmas of an established state church.  What we take so easily for granted today, our right to believe or not believe as each one of us sees fit, during the Revolutionary era, was considered a revolutionary idea.


The legal birth of religious freedom actually occurred in 1786 in Virginia with the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom.  The Act opened with these words: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free . . .”  It then continued, “Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”


The Act declared freedom of the mind and conscience to be the birthright of every human being.  This was truly revolutionary!  Religious liberty was a natural, God-given right and the state could not force any citizen to support any religion.  All citizens were free to practice their own faith or no faith at all openly and freely without fear of government interference.  We are very proud to have on our San Antonio AUSA Chapter Board a direct descendent of one of the signatories of the Act.


The two men most responsible for the passage of the Act were Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and James Madison, the architect of the First Amendment.


The Founders did not oppose religion.  Many had seen or studied what religious persecution had done in Europe and right here in the Colonies.  During the American colonial period, alliances between religion and government produced oppression and tyranny on our own shores.


I can’t read the hearts of Fundamentalist Christians or the Religious Right.  But they should know how the separation of church and state has protected their right to follow their own religious beliefs.


We are truly blessed to live in a country where each one of us can follow the dictates of our own conscience.  We don’t need the government to tell us when or how to pray or not pray.  Allowing government to set aside certain days for prayer and worship implies that the state has some say over our religious lives when it does not.  It is simply not the business of government to advise when, if and how people pray. 

 

 



Home > Area Issues > Government-sponsored Prayer

Lawbutton48Government is generally forbidden to deliver, sponsor, orchestrate, or encourage prayers. Since the nation's founding, however, many legislatures have traditionally opened their meetings with prayer. Given this historical tradition, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that legislative prayers are constitutionally permissible if, but only if, they do not use language or symbols specific to one religion. (Courts have held, however, that elected school boards are different than legislatures, and are forbidden to open their sessions even with nonsectarian prayers.) Furthermore, prayergivers at legislative sessions may not exploit the prayer opportunity to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. A number of federal courts of appeals have thus held that sectarian prayers (i.e., prayers using language specific to one faith) before legislatures or other representative bodies are unconstitutional. One court, with jurisdiction over Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, has taken a more limited view, concluding that sectarian prayers in legislatures are permissible as long as they do not proselytize.

Even apart from using sectarian language, there are many ways that legislative prayer might impermissibly proselytize, advance, or disparage a particular faith. Those who do not wish to be present for a prayer must be allowed to leave and may not be excluded from participating in the rest of the meeting. And those who do not wish to stand or bow their head for the prayer must be allowed to remain seated and must not otherwise be penalized for their nonconformity. A prayer practice may also be unconstitutional if a legislative body selects prayergivers based on their faith or excludes some faith groups from offering prayers. Thus, if a legislative body invites clergy to deliver prayers, it should strive to invite a wide variety of faiths and should instruct the prayergivers to make their prayers nonsectarian, ecumenical, and inclusive of minority faiths.

If your representative body offers a prayer and one or more of the following statements is true, the prayer practice may be unconstitutional:

 

  • Clergy or other invited guests offer the prayers, but minority faiths are excluded from being prayergivers.
  • The prayers often contain explicit references to a particular deity, symbolic religious language, quotations of religious texts, or statements that promote, advance, or denigrate a particular religion.

In October 2010 Bulverde resident and AUSA member Sandi Root sought assistance from AU  in an effort to end a city council tradition of using Christian prayer to open meetings [as shown in the photo by Herald-Zeitung's Laura McKenzie]   AUSA President Eric F. Lane posted to several area newspapers, the text of which is shown below.  This situationn is being monitored by AUSA.

 

A Response to the Bulverde Prayer Controversy

 

We’ve all heard the old saying, “the only thing constant in life is change.”  Change can be hard at Bulverde City Council-smalltimes.  Other times, we can be obstinate simply because we just don’t want to change.  I can remember arguing that no one had the right to tell me I had to wear a seat belt.  Then, I bought a car I really liked that had automatic seat belts.  Now I don’t think twice about hitching my seat belt.  I wasted a lot of breath and anger over really nothing.  That’s what happens when we are set in our ways.

Bulverde is growing and with it comes change.  From new roads and stoplights to new neighbors and schools.  People from different parts of the state and country are moving into the area.  They come with varied backgrounds and religious traditions.  We can choose to respect and defend different faith traditions, or we can chose to become obstinate and try to force our religious views on everyone else.  Historically, the second type of approach has led to conflict and persecution.

The uproar over religious invocations at the opening of city council meetings is an obvious example that Bulverde is growing and changing.  It is also a great opportunity to educate ourselves on the Constitution and what it means to be a true American.

First, we have to remember that in the United States, no government official or politician can tell you which faith to follow.  That very personal decision is made by each individual.  Without this right to worship or not worship as we see fit, Americans would not be a truly free people.

Unlike many countries around the world, the United States mandates full religious freedom in its Constitution.  Amendment I to the Constitution of the United States states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”   The first phrase is known as the “Establishment Clause,” and the second as the “Free Exercise Clause.”  Our Founders created a government where true freedom of conscience was protected.

The First Amendment doesn’t simply defend individuals, it defends churches as well from unnecessary interference and intrusion by government.  It does so by safeguarding religious symbols, beliefs, and practices from being defined, interpreted, endorsed, or opposed by public officials.  Matters of faith should be left to an individual’s conscience, not the pronouncements and actions of government.

The 1st Amendment also protects the political process from being misused to advance sectarian agendas under the guise of legislation.  The essence of democracy is that government be representative of all citizens, even those who may belong to religious minorities or to no religion.

Thomas Jefferson, our nation’s third president and author of the Declaration of Independence, said that the American people through the First Amendment have built a “wall of separation between church and state.”  Although we sometimes take this vital right for granted, visionary thinkers fought long and hard to win this freedom.  They had witnessed not only what state religions had done in Europe, but also right here in the colonies.

Early American colonies made some denominations their official state religions, and those who dissented were jailed, exiled, or even executed.  The Founders understood only too well that in order to have strong, vibrant churches, government needed to stay out of the religion business and religion needed to stay out of government business.  Today, we have over 2,000 faith groups and denominations active in the United States.

This brings me back to the issue of invocations before Bulverde City Council meetings.  Bulverde still falls under the jurisdiction of the Constitution, which makes it clear that government cannot favor one particular religious belief over others, or religion over non-religion. That’s the only way to ensure that Americans from all faith backgrounds, and none, feel included in their communities.

Most American religious leaders appreciate the protections guaranteed by our Constitution.  They have no desire to see any religion, including their own, favored by the government.  Only a small – but vocal and well-organized – minority questions our heritage of religious liberty and campaigns to see their faith enshrined in law.

America is exceptional because it keeps church and state separate.  A true American respects people of all faiths and non-faiths.  City Council is the most basic form of government.  Prayer belongs in churches and homes and other appropriate venues.  It does not belong in government.