There is an overriding philosophy where government and technology meet, seeking to balance the public’s need and right to know with individual privacy concerns and, yes, cost effectiveness. When considering whether or not to digitize certain records or databases, even ones freely accessible by the public during in-person visits to city hall, the question has morphed from, “Can we do this?” to a more nuanced and complex, “Even if we can do this, should we do this?”
The same question should be asked by communities considering a recent Supreme Court decision allowing public prayer before government meetings.
In a split decision, the Court determined prayers at government meetings are a matter of free speech, which the listening officials cannot censor or edit. Even if a visiting member of the clergy chooses to fill his or her time before the body with sectarian attacks, the governmental body must sit quietly.
Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the 5-4 majority, noted, “To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing or approving prayers in advance or criticizing their content after the fact.”
While the Court’s approach initially appears to protect and insulate the government officials conducting the meetings, it effectively lowers prayer from its long-standing pedestal of reverence and solemnity to equate it with the speech found in this column or on radio shows. As such, prayers offered in these settings will become the fodder of public debate.
Government officials may be free to wash their hands of the practice, even as it happens, but citizens can and will criticize the content of the prayers and the intent of those offering them. After all, the rules of free speech dictate that if something is said, others are allowed to respond. For prayers viewed as hurtful, vicious or vindictive, this rule becomes even more important and more burdensome for the government bodies.
When governmental bodies are tasked with the secular and often controversial tasks of transportation, taxation and employee pensions, it is disappointing to think of their public comment sections filled with religious dogma consternation. Discussions on whether or not Jesus was a real person sandwiched between comments on a sewer extension and nuisance lawn growth provide no benefit to a city council or a religious visitor, and would only serve to further divide meeting attendees.
Some government groups have a steeped history of beginning meetings with a religious prayer or message. In light of the most recent decree by the Court, they may want to reconsider.
Councils, boards and other governmental bodies not currently beginning their meetings with prayer will find no incentive in the Galloway decision for calling upon a higher power. Prayer, however well intentioned, according to the court, is only speech.
This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on May 24, 2014. Photo credit: James Lawler Duggan/Reuters