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Langfan: Keep Faith and Government in their Right Place

Before my mother escaped from Iran during the 1979 Revolution, her school was taken over by the government. After attendance every morning, she and all her classmates, including the Jewish students, were forced to stand in line and listen to the head schoolmaster chant Muslim prayers over the loudspeaker. In response, all the students had to repeat “Death to Israel, death to America.”

Sectarian prayer is a divisive issue. On the one hand, the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution calls for a separation between church and state. The Establishment Clause says that our government can’t favor – or even appear to favor – any particular religious group, or even – and this is important - religion over non-religion. This is why, to list some previous case conclusions, state financial aid can’t be provided to church-related educational institutions, why religious celebrations with explicit messages on them can’t be displayed on government propery, why clergymen can’t say prayers at public school ceremonies, and why invoking Christian references at council meetings isn’t allowed either. We don’t want our democracy to turn into a theocracy.

On the other hand, we have a problem. Immediately before our Founding Fathers created this amendment in 1774, they approved a policy to have a chaplain come say prayers at every future congressional meeting. And this historical event is proof for many that our country is inherently a devout one. In fact, this is why Marsh v. Chambers decided that the Founding Fathers couldn’t have expected Americans NOT to say prayers before government meetings.

But here’s where these people are mistaken. It’s not that America is irreligious or telling us not to be religious. The Establishment Clause allows for religion; it just ensures that the government doesn’t publicize a particular religion too strongly, so that we don’t alienate people. The separation of church and state makes sure that we don’t flaunt our religion in the face of those who belong to a different one—OR in front of those who aren’t religious at all. Not only is this the first amendment, it is also basic human respect.

And so this is why I disagree with the resolution. In fact, I believe even nonsectarian prayers should be prohibited as well.

Abolishing sectarian prayer – and prayer at all - before legislative meetings does not mean we are making America into an irreligious state. It is simply keeping faith, and government, in their right places. Right now, thousands of Middle Easterners are being oppressively ruled by governments who feel that it’s okay to mix religion and state. And although you might think the example seems extreme, is it really that different from being forced, as a Jew, to listen quietly to a chaplain praising Jesus at a government meeting?

And with all due respect, I disagree with Chief Justice Burger on the Marsh case. The judge ruled that since the Founding Fathers approved of the chaplaincy practice, so should we. But here’s a question: do we still approve of slavery, just because Thomas Jefferson, one of the Founding Fathers, owned slaves?

Now let’s turn to nonsectarian prayer. As of now, nonsectarian invocations are allowed, which means that if I don’t mention a specific deity in the pre-legislative prayer, then my prayer is let off the hook.

But, here’s the catch: The second part of the establishment clause states that the government can’t even favor religion over non-religion, which is what’s happening with the Galloway case. At these Greece town hall meetings, a Jew and an atheist are feeling alienated because the meetings begin each session with a prayer, which, in the past, used to contain Christian references but are now just nonsectarian. The thing is – Linda Stephens, the atheist, still feels offended. Because prayer is, in itself, religious. By nature, it is a supplication to a deity – and atheists don’t believe in deities at all.

This is why the separation between church and state must be strictly upheld.

If we want to appease those who still want to maintain the inherent, historical, religious “fabric of society,” as Justice Burger said, perhaps we can have a moment of silence in lieu of spoken prayer, which can even be used for religious people to pray in private, if they so wish.

While the idea of invoking G-d in government is nice, let’s keep prayer where it belongs – in houses of worship or in our private hearts and minds.