Rev. Andrea Ayvazian: Dismayed by high court’s decision on prayer at public meetings

Last modified: Friday, May 09, 2014
HAYDENVILLE — I am a Christian. I pray. I believe in prayer. I regularly go on eight-day silent prayer retreats at a Jesuit monastery. I encourage members of my church to develop a regular prayer practice. I am a big fan of prayer and a big pray-er.

Nevertheless, I strongly oppose the recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court to allow Christian prayer at the start of local town council and other municipal meetings.

Declaring that a vocal Christian prayer at the start of local council meetings is consistent with long-held national traditions, the Supreme Court ignored the increasing religious pluralism that is now a hallmark of our diverse population. They privileged Christians over the Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Pagans and atheists who might be present at the meeting.

At stake in the decision is the Constitution’s mandate for a separation of church and state. The court was divided in its 5-4 decision and arguments on both sides were fierce and combative. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said that vocal prayer in civil settings is a part of the national fabric in this country, that a brief opening prayer is ceremonial in nature and that such a prayer serves to signal the solemnity of the occasion. Hence, he argued, the constitutional mandate was not violated.

But other justices found that unconvincing. In her dissenting opinion, Justice Elena Kagan said that a prayer used to open a town board meeting could not be reconciled “with the First Amendment’s promise that every citizen, irrespective of her religion, owns an equal share in her government.”

According to the New York Times, Justice Kennedy said tradition starting with the first U.S. Congress supported the constitutionality of ceremonial prayers at the start of legislative sessions. Legislative prayer, he said, is “a practice that was accepted by the framers and has withstood the critical scrutiny of time and political change.”

But Justice Kagan objected to that assertion, saying that some members of the founding generation — including such notables as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison — took pains to keep sectarian language away from public life. She wrote, “The demand for neutrality among religions is not a product of 21st century ‘political correctness’ but of the 18th century view.”

For me, the court’s decision represents both a violation of the Constitution and the privileging of Christianity over other belief systems at public events. I recognize that Christians have a long and troubled history of excluding and harming members of other religious groups. I think Christians need to ask for forgiveness from the many other people of faith we have ignored, wounded, silenced, injured, or otherwise hurt.

Our work now is to open our arms to and affirm other religious practices and beliefs in a religiously diverse world. The last thing Christians need to do is impose our traditions on others in public settings.

Over the last 15 years, I have been asked to open many public gatherings “with a prayer or some religious reflection,” as it is often said. Over the years I have always, without fail, referred to the “Holy One, known to us by so many different names and revealed to us in so many different ways.”

Although I have tried to be wildly inclusive and never referred to Jesus or God, I have received feedback from participants that however phrased, it is uncomfortable for some folks to begin the proceedings with prayer.

So now, more often than not, I simply invite people to settle into a time of shared silence — to grow quiet and contemplative together, whatever that means for each individual present. Should some people choose to pray during the silence, that is their business; if some other people think about what they will have for dinner or remind themselves to fill the tank with gas on the way home, that is also their business.

What upsets me about the Supreme Court’s decision is that it denies the beautiful tapestry we are creating in a country that is increasingly multi-faith. The Supreme Court decision is dangerous because it will, once again, make faiths other than Christianity invisible and powerless.

Christian prayer is a good thing — in settings that are clearly and explicitly Christian. Otherwise, Christian prayer can be unwelcome at best and oppressive at worst. As a Christian pastor, I want to honor my sisters and brothers of all faiths, and not impose my beliefs, language, practices, or prayers on them in any setting in any way.

Too bad the Supreme Court did not share this view, and uphold the religious freedom this country was founded upon and is embedded in the Constitution.

The Rev. Andrea Ayvazian, pastor of the Haydenville Congregational Church, writes a monthly column on faith, culture and politics. She can be reached at opinion@gazettenet.com.