Thursday, November 29, 2007

Buddhist prayer opens Pennsylvania legislative session

Is prayer ever appropriate in the public domain, even when it is non-sectarian? That is theme of an written about Anthony Schultz, a Buddhist, giving the opening prayer to a session of the Pennsylvania legislature. On what grounds and precisely where should those who advocate separation of church and state stake their position? Here are some excerpts:
Buddhist prayer opens state Senate to show diversity
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
By Tom Barnes, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- A Buddhist leader, making a first-ever appearance before the state Senate yesterday, said he's OK with opening legislative sessions with a prayer as long as leaders of all faiths get a chance to speak and they don't try to proselytize.

Anthony Stultz of Harrisburg, who for 20 years has been a Buddhist "sensei," meaning "venerable priest or teacher," opened the Senate session yesterday with a brief prayer, the first time an official of that faith has been asked to do so. He is the leader of the Blue Mountain Lotus Society in Harrisburg.

The Senate is trying to show it doesn't limit the prayers to just Christian ministers or Jewish rabbis but follows a diverse religious policy, in hopes of persuading a Washington, D.C., group, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, not to file suit to halt the opening-prayer practice.

"We must stick steadfastly to our core beliefs and preserve the right of prayer," said Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.

Most of the religious leaders giving the prayers have been either Protestant, Catholic or Jewish, but Senate officials said the opportunity is open to leaders of any recognized faith.

Americans United complained that one guest minister closed his prayer with the words "in the name of Jesus." Another minister used the words "Jesus Christ our Lord"...

The Rev. Barry W. Lynn, director of Americans United, wrote in an October letter to the Senate, "I don't think legislatures should open with prayers. The use of prayers with sectarian language implies that some religious groups enjoy favored status with the state. But if they're going to, the prayers should be nonsectarian," meaning not using the name of any actual religious leader.

But Mr. Lynn said that even nonsectarian prayer can make some people feel uneasy and urged senators "to consider ceasing the prayers altogether in order to make all feel equally welcome at session of the Senate."

{emphasis added}
The basis for most claims about separation of church and state in the United States come from the Constitution and the interpretation of the "Establishment clause" of the First Amendment: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion... Which is then followed by the "Free Exercise clause": or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. Given that in 18th century Europe, and particularly in England, there was a nationally established religion, and further given that many people migrating to the British colonies in the New World were seeking religious freedom, this clause makes sense, as does an explicit injunction in Article VI section 3 against requiring a religious test to hold public office: religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States. I firmly believe in all three of these clauses as the most sensible and fair way to handle religion in public life. The Constitution prohibits Congress from passing legislation that either explicitly or implicitly creates or promotes a form of religion as a state-sponsored or state-endorsed institution. Yet you also cannot pass legislation that keeps people from freely exercising their religion.

I have written before and am taking an opportunity to reassert my appreciation of this balance. It is based on an appreciation of fair government and it is based on an appreciation of religious liberty. That is, I see this system as protecting religion from the influence of government as much as I see it as protecting government from the influence of any particular religion or religious movement. When a religious symbol or ceremony is incorporated into public life in the United States, it begins a process of becoming non-sectarian, generic, and eventually even secular. While individuals may still read traditional meanings into them, when they are part of the public domain their value is set by courts and politicians, not by religious leaders and lay practitioners. This is not the work of evil secularist plotters, but the result of the process of making certain symbols and activities acceptable and meaningful to all citizens. This process of developing and maintaining equity is an intentional leveler. If you want your beliefs to be cherished and set above all others, don't toss them into a system designed to be an equalizer.

Yet passing laws establishing religion is not the same as having a prayer before a legislative meeting. The Establishment clause doesn't say you can't be religious or express religious sentiments, and in fact, the very next clause that states the opposite. This is the kind of area where things get murky. One extreme interpretation of the Establishment clause suggests that while administering her or his duties as a public servant no one holding a government office should at any time make any statement or take any action which could suggest an endorsement of religion. Not just of a particular religion, which could be seen as a backdoor endorsement of a specific faith, but of any behavior or speech that is popularly associated with religion, such as prayer. Even a generic, non-sectarian prayer that does not explicitly mention a God or gods or any particular religious founder, apostle, or prophet. That is, the concept of religion itself should be eschewed and virtually barred from any aspect of the public domain except for areas such as anti-discrimination laws. The other extreme says that as long as Congress does not pass a law making a particular religion the official religion of the country, there is no other prohibition against religion in government other than the clause about not requiring a religious test to hold public office. I don't think that either the original intent or the most useful interpretation of the Establishment clause is found in either of these views.

The issue is tricky because there are two concepts of fair-play at work here. One suggests that so long as all groups have the same access to the public sphere, then things like non-sectarian prayers should be allowed. Ideally then, a Buddhist, a Jain, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Native American shaman, a Wiccan priestess, a Humanist chaplain, and a Satanist would be given the same consideration and courtesy as Christian or a Jew when applying to give a prayer before a legislative assembly. And so long as that is true, then the activity is in compliance with the idea of not showing favoritism or endorsing one group over another. If there happen to be more Jews and Christians in the population and more of them happen to apply to give the prayer, that isn't discrimination, it's just demographics. The other view suggests that there is a discrimination in selection beyond just demographics and that on both counts the activity is not equitable. If a system isn't equitable because of prejudice and structural aspects of society that favor one group over another, then either special consideration should be given to minority groups facing discrimination or the activity should be suspended.

I am not sure, though, where the argument that some people are uncomfortable around prayer fits into any of this nor how it is relevant to the Constitutional argument over separating church and state. I realize Rev. Lynn wasn't making a case here based on the Separation clause, but I feel it is important to distinguish what one feels is the right interpretation of the Consitution and one's personal reaction to even the concept of prayer. Prayer is an ancient practice found in monotheistic, polytheistic, and nontheistic forms of religion and spirituality and when conducted in the format typical of the situation under consideration (public, generic, nonsectarian), it is generally intended as a positive affirmation of goals and capacities of the members of the assembly, not as an attempt at proselytizing. It is part of our culture, similar to standing for the national anthem before a sporting event. I may not always feel like participating, but knowing it will happen at the beginning of the event doesn't make me want to avoid going to a game.

If an adult is highly distressed or by a generic invocation of the will and potential of the assembly and a linguistic structure which uses stirring imagery or solemnity, or if such a brief ceremony makes him or her feel unwelcome, that says more about the history and psychology of the distressed individual than it does the fairness or Constitutional legitimacy of having a prayer. If it is simply a mild annoyance, it shouldn't stop anyone from visiting or being part of the legislature. My own concerns about such prayers lean more toward the idea that they are not always non-sectarian and include my doubts that the process of selection is equitable in any sense of that word. I also am concerned that these problems can lead to the appearance of having a particular legislative body favoring or endorsing certain views of religion or even specific religions, but unlike the first two concerns, it is not a Constitutional issue unless you adopt the one extreme interpretation of the Establishment clause.

This is where the motives of the Pennsylvania legislature comes in. They did not, according the article, have Anthony Stultz visit as just another applicant who had been fairly selected from among an equitable pool of suitable candidates. They brought him in to give the appearance of such equity. The reporter may be wrong about that, but if he is correct, it looks like tokenism. That is, bringing in the occasional excluded minority to offset the appearance of discrimination. Which begs the question, if you weren't playing favorites, why would you need to do that in the first place? This is where I rejoin Rev. Lynn's position in being strongly concerned over how such practices are conducted and how the people involved are selected. All things being equal, I think there can be a place for a "prayer" (i.e. vocalization of the virtues and qualities that one wishes to be embodied by those present) at the start of events such legislative sessions. I am simply uncinvinced of that equality.


By the way, I do not think my views contradict the principles of organizations such as Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. While some members may adopt what I consider the most extreme interpretation of the Establishment clause, there is consensus on the issue of the importance of keeping our government religiously neutral. I encourage you to visit their website and support their cause.

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