The National Day of Prayer That Almost Wasn’t

May 5, 2011

Today is the National Day of Prayer, an opportunity for people of many faiths to act on what is certainly a universal human inclination; the impulse to give thanks, to forgive and ask forgiveness and to petition God for provision and blessing and greater wisdom. We live in a time of great need for such activity – a time of economic trouble, war, and division.

As a nation with deep and extensive Christian roots, such observances have always been a part of our cultural activity. Beyond religious institutions, we have recognized the importance of prayer for the unity and consolation of our nation. The first proclamations for days of national prayer came with the Continental Congress and were advocated by our first presidents. In fact the practice has been relatively uncontroversial – until recently.

A recent lawsuit brought by the Freedom From Religion Foundation sought to render unconstitutional the accepted practice of US Presidents since the founding of the nation; and they almost succeeded.

In April of 2010, a US District Judge Crabb (an apt name) ruled for the Foundation writing that the practice was unconstitutional, crossing the line from mere acknowledgement of religious practice to encouragement. It isn’t clear where the Constitution forbids the encouragement of prayer via Presidential proclamation, as it is not law nor does it establish a religion but the courts have greatly expanded understanding of the 1st amendment in recent years to suit the desires of secularists. While her ruling was definitive, it was uncertain what power a District court had to control what a President proclaimed.

Nonetheless, the ruling was rightly appealed (for which the Obama administration deserves praise) and recently overturned by a 3-0 decision of a US Court of appeals. As the court employed ‘lack of standing’ to overturn decision in the same way the  Supreme Court did in the recent Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn case, the ruling is likely to persist through appeals. In the ruling Chief Judge Frank Easterbrook rightly noted of Obama’s proclamation that, “… no one is obligated to pray, any more than a person would be obligated to hand over his money if the president asked all citizens to support the Red Cross and other charities…The president has made a request; he has not issued a command. No one is injured by a request that can be declined.” It seems a rather obvious conclusion.

So we are again free to do what we have been doing for over 200 years.

The upside to these challenges is they give us an appreciation for the freedoms we have and remind us how fragile and rare the liberties we enjoy are. This is more than appropriate for a day of prayer as gratitude is the best motivation for prayer. Though there have been significant recent rulings in favor of religious liberty it is obvious there is concerted effort afoot by emboldened atheists and secularist fellow travelers to diminish the religious character and practice of our country.

This fact alone should encourage us to pray today with greater fervency.


Free Exercise and the Welfare State

May 10, 2010

In recent years there has been an increasing antagonism to public displays of religious faith. Whether it concerns the those national symbols which historically refer to our inherited religious beliefs as in the Pledge of Allegiance or the National Anthem, or whether dealing with more explicit religious expressions, as in prayers offered at public events, the opposition to such expressions has grown if not in numbers, certainly in volume.

 In the recent past such conflicts usually occurred as the result of what was perceived to be the direct imposition of religious belief on unwilling participants by the state via  of the Federal or state government agencies. For this reason the Establishment Clause, that portion of the 1st Amendment which is understood to prevent the government from becoming excessively entangled in religious matters, is understood to be violated when publicly funded educational institutions express in any manner religious sentiments via a state agent like a teacher or curriculum.

 More recently, this idea of undue entanglement has begun to grow with the expansion of the welfare state. One recent example, reported by WSBTV in Georgia illustrates the problem:

 On Thursday, the usual open prayer before meals at the center was traded in for a moment of silence.

 The dilemma is being hashed out by the Port Wentworth city attorney, said Mayor Glenn “Pig” Jones.

 Tim Rutherford, Senior Citizens Inc. vice president, said some of his staff recently visited the center and noticed people praying shortly before lunch was served. Rutherford said his company provides meals like baked chicken, steak tips and rice and salads at a cost of about $6 a plate. Seniors taking the meals pay 55 cents and federal money foots the rest of the bill, Rutherford said.

“We can’t scoff at their rules,” he said of federal authorities. “It’s a part of the operational guidelines.”

 Rutherford said the moment of silence was introduced to protect that funding. He said although the change may have been misinterpreted, perhaps his company could have done a better job selling it.

 “It’s interpreted that we’re telling people that they can’t pray, but we aren’t saying that,” he said. “We’re asking them to pray to themselves. Have that moment of silence.”

 That such a thing should happen, whether we believe it to be right or wrong, should come as no surprise because bureaucracies are dumb. By this I don’t mean government workers are unintelligent, but rather that collectively the state acts mindlessly in accordance with the rules and regulations it is given, not in accordance with cultural realities, or traditions, or personal sensitivities. The state is no respecter of individuals, and it’s activities reduce every situation down to the lowest common denominator – in the case of religious liberty, this lowest denominator is always state imposed secularism. And the larger the state gets, the more it imposes on every aspect of our lives.

So then there is growing conflict between the ever-expanding welfare state and the liberty our Constitution affords each of us to express our religious beliefs. As the state intrudes itself financially into virtually every aspect of our lives – our education, our medical needs, taking care of us in our retirement, etc – it gains the power (or claims to) to dictate to us the manner and degree of expression of our respective faiths. Whether it is limiting personal prayers shared between individuals, or, as in the example above, corporate prayers shared at a meal, the growth of government as our caretaker inevitably entails the imposition of secular restrictions on our lives.

 So the Progressive advancement of the welfare state has the potential not only to impoverish us in a material sense, but also in a spiritual sense. The ‘generosity’ of the state comes with not with mere strings attached, but with chains – chains which invariably reduce our hard won and most precious individual liberties. Ultimately interested in our most basic liberties must also oppose the growth of the welfare state on every level.

The Old Rugged Cross

April 28, 2010

With the Supreme Court evenly split between judicial liberals and conservatives (with Justice Kennedy falling somewhere in between), court watchers usually find something to be disappointed or delighted with in each new ruling, depending on their own political bent. Today’s ruling on Salazar v. Buono will leave most simply confused.

 A quick summary of the case is this – in 1934 the VFW erected a large cross on ‘Sunrise Rock’ near San Bernadino, CA. In 1994, the area was designated the Mojave National Preserve, making it a Federal land.

 In 2001, Frank Buono, a former National Park Service employee sued the Federal Government to have them remove the memorial based on it’s supposed violation of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. While that was pending in court, Congress designated the cross a national memorial. Seven months later the court ruled the cross could not be displayed on Federal lands. Three months after that Congress passed a provision that Federal funds couldn’t be used to dismantle the cross. Nearly a year later Congress moved to transfer the land to the Veterans Home of California to maintain the Cross memorial.

 The Ninth Circuit court of appeals affirmed the earlier court ruling, and then sought to bar the transfer of the land. The next appeal landed it on the Supreme Courts docket.

 Clear enough? It gets worse.

 In their decision today the court ruled the lower court had erred in barring the land transfer, and remanded the case back to the lower court for reconsideration based on the Higher Court’s stipulations. Of course, that was the opinion of two of the justices – a third concurring justice didn’t think the transfer should be held up at all. Two of the conservative justices didn’t think Buono had standing to bring the case to begin with, and the other four liberal dissenters said the lower court ruling should stand.

Which I think puts us back at square one – in the meantime the cross stands there in the desert, not harming anyone.