“Keep your prayer in the closet!” – Jesus Christ

This week’s meeting of the Town of Quartzsite Council has an item on its agenda that piqued my interest:

“Discussion of letter received from the Freedom from Religious Foundation [sic] and possible action to replace prayer with a moment of silence as invocation.”

I don’t know how the Freedom from Religion Foundation found Quartzsite, Arizona, but it’s likely that one of the hundreds of YouTube videos of the town’s turbulent political proceedings was sent to them, raising an Establishment Clause objection to the invocation on each agenda.

The invocation is a standard feature of council meetings across America. A local minister or other religious person leads each gathering in prayer before the rest of the agenda is discussed, typically taking the form of asking God for his guidance and help and blessing upon the meeting and the council.

That’s fairly harmless, right?

Well it isn’t quite that simple. One of the objections is relatively obvious: what if a council member is not a theist, but a deist, agnostic or atheist? Or what if they are theists but with respect to a different god or gods than the one being prayed to? Or what if a very religious council member simply feels that God and government need to be held at separate ends of the moral-legal spectrum, as Thomas Jefferson did?

Americans believe in God more than any other developed country, so the invocations at the beginnings of most council meetings have gone largely unchallenged. But there are a few court challenges that give precedent in this matter, the most instructive of which is Marsh v. Chambers, (1983). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the invocation is constitutional, so long as it is not “exploited to proselytize or advance any one […] faith or belief.”

So, as long as the invocation remains open for Christians and Jews to pray to Jesus and Yahweh, Muslims to pray to Allah, Native Americans to pray to the Great Spirit, Wiccans to pray to the Moon God and atheists to ‘bless’ the meeting with civic values, then it’s legal.

For many Christians – who make up the majority in almost every town in the country – these are attacks on the traditional conservative values they think make America what it is. ‘Taking God out of….’ government, schools etc. is regarded as inviting judgement and generally being a bad move for the nation.

But one wonders why the Creator of the universe in all its vastness and majesty – a Supreme Being that is greater than the whole of the cosmos – would need to be invoked in meetings about local ordinances and politics in the first place. As the FFRF puts it:

“Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before local government bodies on civic, secular matters: variances, sewers, permits, licenses, repair, etc. They should not be subjected to a religious show or test, or be expected to bow heads and demonstrate religious obeisance at a government function. (We fail to see why divine guidance is needed over such earthly matters, anyway.)”

This raises perhaps the most important point of all: Towns have diverse populations of people, who have a variety of backgrounds and religions and belief systems, all of whom need to be equally represented in government. Does it make sense to imbue the meetings of that government with a sense that the civic proceedings are being conducted not only with their needs and desires in mind (democracy) but with the needs and desires of a deity in mind (theocracy), who they might not even believe exists?

Religion is most commonly thought of as being a personal matter. While Jefferson was talking about the reasons for what he called the ‘wall of separation between Church and State’ enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, he put it like this:

“…religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, [and] he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship…”

And therefore, elected council members are free to pray on their own time, appeal privately to God for help in decision-making, or use divine guidance when they sense it. But Jefferson’s wall of separation should always be observed. In Quartzsite, that could mean a moment of silence for reflection at the beginning of each meeting, of which people of all beliefs can partake.

In Lodi, California, they established the following rules after running into a similar challenge:

• Leaders of any religion can give the invocation;
• Non-religious people can give a “Call to Civic Responsibility”;
• Disclaimers are included on the agenda saying that the prayers are voluntary and don’t necessarily reflect the council’s views;
•Invocations that directly seek to convert or demean a particular religious belief or lack thereof will be prohibited.

These rules strike me as a fair way to keep the tradition of the invocation, if town councils feel such a tradition is important.


Reply from M Palmer:

First of all, as a devout Christian man myself, I surprise most people when I agree with the atheists that I don’t think we should be having “prayer” before public meetings.

This first occurred to me when I was doing missionary work in Utah where the Town meetings there also started with prayer. But there, all those Mormons were praying to a different god – a god-man named Elohim who lived on a planet near Kolob with thousands of wives – rather than the God of the Bible.

God warned His people in the Bible not to commingle with pagans and heathens. But that’s what we’re doing. What would Christians think about opening public meetings with prayer if they lived in Saudi Arabia? So I’m also not a fan of the National Day of Prayer, etc. You hit the nail on the head: I don’t want to be bowing my head with wiccans.

Having said that, I write to challenge you on Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation.” This one phrase of Jefferson’s, written to the Danbury Baptist church in 1802 – to assure them the government would not intrude into their rights, not the other way around – has become mythical. And propaganda.

There is no such thing as “the ‘wall of separation between Church and State’ enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution” as you wrote. Please show me where the word “separation” is found. It’s not there.

In fact, the Ten Commandments are written in the U.S. Supreme Court building. And speeches of old used to reference God all the time.


Well it certainly shouldn’t be surprising that a person of faith agrees with taking the invocation out of public meetings. If that person is an American, they would know that the roles of religion and of politics are rightly held separately in this nation.

But, by implying that you believe this only because you don’t want to “commingle” with non-Christian faiths, rather than because America is not – and has never been – a “Christian” nation (only a nation with lots of Christians in it), then we disagree. You imply that America’s government is Christian by nature, referring me to the Ten Commandments on the courthouse wall and having God in speeches of old. And you take me to task on the separation of church and state, asking me where it is in the Constitution.

I’m always surprised by this objection. I didn’t say that the word “separation” is in the Constitution; we agree it isn’t. But Jefferson was explaining the First Amendment, and – as one of the framers – he should know! James Madison used the term “drew a line”; same thing. John Adams wrote the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified unanimously by the 1797 Senate, which says it even more explicitly: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” You can’t get much clearer than that! “IN ANY SENSE” is pretty unequivocal.

As for the Ten Commandments on the courthouse walls, perhaps you can tell me how many of those commandments are actually the basis of laws in this country? I count three, at most: Do not steal, Do not kill, Do not bear false witness. But name for me a single society, anywhere in the world, where it is perfectly okay for average people to commit theft, commit murder, or commit perjury? These three commandments are, in other words, sort of universal, requiring no religion to be involved in government at all (let alone the strong influence of the Christian one).

The other seven are a mixture of the amoral and the ethical. We don’t have them as laws, for good reason.

But maybe you think we’re wrong? Maybe you want America to enact them as laws after all? The injunction not to have any other gods before Yahweh could be enforced, if you like. A prison term, perhaps, for the unfaithful. Not making graven images could be similarly enforced (though many churches and museums will be gutted in the process). Not taking the name of this God in vain wouldn’t even be too difficult to enforce, if you don’t mind convicting speech on a regular basis. Remembering Saturdays and keeping them holy… (you didn’t think it was SUNDAY, did you?!). And we could have anti-coveting task forces at the federal level if the United States government is really to enforce the Tenth Commandment. Pinterest and Facebook would be fertile grounds for enforcement of that law (which would convict thought-crime).

However, I suspect you don’t want the Ten Commandments as the basis of our laws any more than I do, and I suspect that you think the Bill of Rights is more important. We have a choice in this matter: we can either say that somebody is FREE TO COVET IF THEY WISH (per the Bill of Rights) or we can say THOU SHALT NOT COVET (per the Ten Commandments). Which of these conflicting ideas do you want enshrined in the law of this nation?

And what benefit is there to Christians in forcing everybody else to abide by their edicts anyway? Didn’t Jesus tell his followers to preach the good news, not legislate it? What is so unpalatable about the idea of freedom for everyone? Such hypocrisy, too, from those who say they believe in a free country and then fight to keep their sectarianism enshrined in laws that affect everyone.

Contrary to the idea that America was founded with Judeo-Christian values, which mostly came about during the heady evangelicalism of the 1950s (the motto ‘In God We Trust’ was not the motto of the Founders, the words ‘under God’ were not part of the Pledge of Allegiance; both of these were changed less than 60 years ago), the United States of America was the first nation to ever declare its government to be operating on the values of liberty and rights, rather than religious ideas or principles.

And thank God for it.