There has been a lot of controversy over the last several decades over whether or not prayer should be allowed at public venues. Obviously, there were the two supreme court cases in 1962 and 63 when prayer was banned in public schools. Fast forward to the recent Supreme Court ruling that permits prayer before public meetings. And now we have a new flare-up in the fight as the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service has refused to allow an opening, nondenominational prayer at a citizenship ceremony in New Jersey. As a result, the town cancelled the ceremony and it had to be moved to another location.
This kind of thing generates a lot of heat on both sides of the question. We have pro-prayer people fighting to allow public prayer, citing tradition which goes all the way back to our founding, against anti-prayer people who say allowing prayer runs contrary to the constitutional ban on government sponsored religion.
The problem is, though, this fight is generally fought using shallow emotional arguments and misses the most important elements that inform the discussion. Really, there are two extremely important matters that virtually no one brings up.
First, there is no constitutional sanction against prayer at public meetings. What the Constitution prohibits is government establishment of a state church. Prayer at public meetings has nothing whatsoever to do with what is written in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The other element that is generally left out of the discussion is that the push to eliminate prayer is, literally, the attempt to push aside a traditional religious belief in God and substitute a different religious belief that there is no God. The act of eliminating prayer does not eliminate the fact that the motivation for doing so is based on a set of beliefs which are religious in nature. Belief that God does not exist is, literally, a religious belief. It has no empirical justification.
The biggest problem that exists is that most people don’t see Atheism as a religion. In fact, many Atheists work very hard to distance themselves from the very thought that they hold a religious belief. They argue that “not believing in something (God)” cannot possibly be considered a religion. The only problem is they do believe in something. They simply try to hide that fact by talking about their faith using negative terminology. That doesn’t, however change the fact that they do believe that all of reality can be accounted for by natural means (a decidedly faith – religious – assumption).
When Atheists have their turn at leading a public meeting and they want to have merely a moment of silence, quote a secular poem or do nothing at all as a way of expressing their religious belief, that is their business. But to, at the same time, deny Christian people the opportunity to express their faith is the height of either ignorance, arrogance, or hypocrisy.