High Point Needs Your Prayers…

By Anthony | July 6th, 2007 | 12:51 am

… because our city council is about to fight a losing battle:

Mike Pugh got a standing ovation even before he finished telling the gathering for the “In Jesus’ Name” prayer rally Saturday that he is willing to take the fight to invoke the name of Jesus in opening City Council meetings all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

I see two possible outcomes to this.

The first is that they fight it out in court and lose. Similar cases have been tried before, and the courts have been consistent – sectarian prayers that advance one specific faith over another are unconstitutional. If Pugh and the city council are merely going to “fight to invoke the name of Jesus in opening City Council meetings” then they are going to lose that fight – at the taxpayers’ expense.

The second possible outcome hinges on the council taking a slightly different approach. From the News and Record article linked above:

Pugh’s proposal would allow for a rotation of people of various faiths, which would give non-Christians the same right to invoke the name of their deity during prayer — something he thinks would pass muster with the courts.

That has the potential to succeed in court. However, winning that battle sets the council up for a whole different set of problems. It’s been shown in the past that while some folks *say* they are willing to give people of other faiths equal access, when that possibility becomes a reality they suddenly become firm believers in the idea of separation of church and state. The most recent example that comes to mind is the Virginia fiasco revolving around a pagan flyer handed out at schools.

Christian groups in Albemarle County, Virginia pushed their school district to allow churches to distribute flyers to schoolchildren through a school “backpack mail” program. After being threatened with legal action by the Liberty Counsel – a Religious Right legal group – the district acceded to the request, opening the “backpack mail” program to all religious groups. Soon after, some local Pagans took advantage of the opportunity with a flyer promoting a December holiday event with a Pagan twist to it. Christian leaders and parents in the community suddenly saw this as inappropriate, and expressed outrage at the idea that the school system would allow such flyers to be distributed.

ReligiousTolerance.org has some examples that are even more relevant:

The Tampa city council has had a long tradition of having Christian ministers and an occasional Jewish rabbi deliver an invocation before the start of each meeting. Ed Golly, chairperson of Atheists of Florida offered to have someone from his group take a turn saying the invocation. Councilman John Dingfelder agreed. He later said that people of different beliefs, or lack thereof, deserve a chance to give an invocation without censorship. He said “I thank God every day that I live in a country that accepts everybody.” The Atheist group had selected Michael R. Harvey to say the invocation. Councilman Kevin White tried to deny him an opportunity to speak, saying: “We have never had people of an Atheist group represent Americans and I don’t think it is appropriate in this setting.” He called for a vote to either find a different person to pray, or to bypass the invocation for this meeting. Different sources say that there was either one or two votes in favor; the vote would have had to be unanimous in order to take effect. White then walked out of the meeting, along with fellow council members Mary Alvarez and Rose Ferlita.

And this:

Cynthia Simpson, a Wiccan priestess, was informed that she could not lead the opening prayer at a Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors meeting. The county asserted that her beliefs as a Wiccan were not consistent with the Judeo-Christian tradition.

So, how will High Point Councilmembers and citizens react when a Muslim Imam wants to deliver the invocation, praying in the name of Allah? Or a Wiccan Priestess? A Satanist? Is that something that Pugh and his supporters really want to see?

This issue has come up before, and I think Jon Lowder had a great take on the situation in the comments:

As far as the City Council and whether/how they pray, personally I don’t see a need for any government forum to start with a prayer of any kind. To me it is city business, not city worship. I’ve never been in a business meeting that started with a prayer and I don’t see the need for it at a city business meeting.

Despite what some of the people quoted in the News and Record article seem to think, no one is trying to stop any private citizens from praying on their own time as they see fit. The circumstances in question are very limited – actions by a government body at a government business function. As Mayor Becky Smothers pointed out, “Council is perfectly able to pray informally before we get up on that dais.” They can also pray silently to themselves at absolutely any time they want to.

I think some words from Matthew are appropriate here:

And now about prayer. When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I assure you, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father secretly. Then your Father, who knows all secrets, will reward you.

Whatever reward Pugh is seeking through a legal battle, I don’t think it’s going to work out quite the way he hopes.

5 Responses to “High Point Needs Your Prayers…”

  1. Ged Says:

    Wonderful post Anthony. Your take on this, along with your quote from Matthew is just perfect. Well done.

  2. Anthony Says:

    Thanks Ged!

  3. Ged Says:

    As soon as I saw this on Think Progress, I thought immediately of your post about prayer before government meetings in Highpoint. This is the kind of thing that is bound to happen if our local officials agree to allow different types of faiths give the opening prayer.

  4. Anthony Says:

    Exactly right. Actually, that incident is probably pretty mild compared to the reaction that would occur here if there was a Hindu invocation at a city council meeting.

  5. Plead the First » Blog Archive » Cartoon: In the Name of Who? Says:

    [...] The High Point City Council recently voted on a resolution to stick with non-sectarian prayers at the start of their meetings. The resolution passed, with Councilman Mike Pugh casting the lone, dissenting vote, saying, “No, in the name of Jesus Christ”. As you may recall, Pugh would rather start city council meetings with prayers to Jesus. [...]