No more prayer in legislative sessions


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Prayer is usually a peaceful moment — a moment where people can share intimacy with their chosen divinity.

But conflict over prayer in the public sphere has developed after a controversial prayer last week in the Iowa Legislature. The prayer, which advocated strong social conservatism, clearly crossed both religious and political lines; it represented a serious violation of the boundary between religious invocation and political procedure.

In order to preserve the separation between church and state, and to avoid trampling on those with minority beliefs or no religious beliefs at all, prayer in the Legislature should be restricted to a moment of silence — if that.

The prayer last week was given by the Rev. Mike Demastus of the Fort Des Moines Church of Christ. His prayer explicitly called upon reverence for the sanctity of marriage (heterosexual only) and forgiveness from God for abortion practices and asked those present to “have courage to rescue those being led away to death.”

“The particular prayer that the person gave is more specific than usual,” University of Iowa political-science Associate Professor Tim Hagle told the Editorial Board. “It’s treading on thin Constitutional ice.”

To keep their automatic tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status, churches are prohibited from directly or indirectly urging congregations to vote for one candidate over another. They are allowed to advance political issues, though they may not spend church income on political campaigning. Demastus’ speech does not appear to have violated the IRS regulations, although it poses a serious challenge to the reason for their existence: separation of church and state.

The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the U.S. Constitution; instead, it stems from the establishment clause of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”. The Lemon test, derived from a 1971 Supreme Court decision, Lemon v. Kurtzman, defines “excessive entanglement” between government and religion as one of the key factors in considering whether a law violates the establishment clause.

Obviously, there’s no law directly in question. The Iowa Legislature is not considering making a particular Christian denomination the certified state religion. But the marriage of political causes to religious purpose — and the invocation of that religious purpose in the public sphere, immediately prior to legislative action — is concerning.

“[The Supreme Court can] see the way in which people view religious beliefs and use that power to advocate for issues politically,” Hagle said. A belief system with inviolable doctrine and dogma runs counter to the sort of legislative deliberation at the center of our democracy.

Allowing Demastus — or any minister — the opening prayer (particularly when it neatly coincides with present legislative land mines) is a tacit endorsement of those beliefs. Whether those beliefs advance liberal or conservative policies, they are exclusionary and inappropriate for government procedure.

“I am equally skeptical about ‘nondenominational and nonpartisan’ entreaties,” UI religious-studies and history Professor Raymond Mentzer told the Editorial Board in an e-mail. “They are always embedded within a cultural context and, hence, never completely neutral.” Mentzer believes that even moments of silence endorse religion over nonbelief.

Still, at least a moment of silence before the Legislature would provide people with a time for personal reflection apart from others’ religious beliefs or viewpoints. It would eliminate the possibility for groups to advance political causes swaddled in the language of the sacred.

The issues on the Iowa legislative agenda, though, are hot-button religious issues. While the gay-marriage ban and a proposal to ban all abortions were tossed out in the legislative funnel last week, they will assuredly return. The way legislators vote, in a state ranked 15th in the nation for regular church attendance, will be rooted in a worldview that frequently stems from religious doctrine.

Those legislators should take the time to exercise their freedom of belief in private. Office gatherings, before-work moments, and even individual pauses during the day for religious reflection are appropriate venues for prayer; the legislative chamber is not. Opening government sessions with group worship puts a particular kind of god in the state’s legislative brain.

Even if that god changes by the day, it belongs somewhere else.

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