“Sit Down So We Can Start The Meeting!” — What the Supreme Court Should Have Said is Acceptable for Public Meetings

GavelNow, isn’t that a better way to open a city council meeting? Do we have to endure community prayer? Is that really the only way to get everyone on the same page of the hymnal, so to speak, so civic business can be addressed in a civilized fashion?

Hey, Catholic justices on the Supreme Court! Yes, you. I realize you thought you were trying to be inclusive and address this idea of prayer at a government meeting as a non-issue, one that is more about free speech than freedom of religion, but I call this one an epic fail. Playing right into the hands of the “prayer everywhere” folks who are crowding into the subways waving their Good Books, preaching homophobic homilies at the mall, and leafleting about the role of women in the home to beat the band, you just made me real upset.

If I lived in Greece, New York today, I would be rallying my neighbors to vote OUT of office the lovely people who insist that the Founding Fathers would have wanted town meetings to begin with a plea to Jesus for guidance. I personally find that pretty distasteful. I’m a Catholic too, and a former Sunday School teach to boot. But when a civic meeting begins with the words, “Let’s bow our, …” I am already out the door.

Freedom of religion has to mean that everyone – the overtly religious among us, the covertly religious, the non-religious, and the anti-religious – is equally represented. I don’t want to have to get up and leave because this “harmless” little prayer makes me so uncomfortable I find it impossible to stay. I do not want to be singled out, watched, noted, identified, or jotted down just because I want to render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.

I realize Supreme Court decisions are rarely straightforward, meaning that most of the time the questions the justices are asked to answer are not what hits the papers and the nightly news. In this case, the “highest court in the land” just said to God and everybody that Christian prayer is appropriate to start civic meetings in small towns – the very place where I would want non-mainstream Christians and non-Christians to be protected.

I know the issue of freedom of speech really is paramount, but I wonder if the Supreme Court would understand how uncomfortable many Christians will feel about this. There are many, many strands and strains of Christianity and lots of Catholics do not want to have to “ignore” a community of the prayerful. And while I would find it quite lovely actually, to hear Jewish or Muslim prayers, a lot of folks will not. Town hall meetings are just not the place to teach World Religion 101 to folks who are already saved.

So, what are the options? I really like the idea of voting these folks out of office. That works big time for me. Give up that “moment”; you aren’t fooling anyone. Shelve the prayer and just ask people to take their seats. If even two of your constituents are made unwelcome at your meetings, drop it and move on or find yourself on the wrong side of the ballot box at the next election.

“Shut up and sit down so we can get this thing started!” Now that has a delightful inclusive ring to it.

Anne Born is a New York-based writer who has been writing stories and poetry since childhood.  While her children were enrolled in New York City public schools in the late 1990s, she edited and published The Backpack Press, and the CSDIII News, a monthly newsletter covering all public schools on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.  She blogs on Open Salon and Red Room and her writing focuses on family and life in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She is also a photographer who specializes in photos of churches, cemeteries, and the Way of St. James in Spain.  Most of her writing is done on the bus.  www.about.me/anneborn. You can follow Anne on Twitter at @nilesite.
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