We should preserve the tradition of prayer at council meetings
By Barbara Traylor Smith
Although I am a member of the Grand Junction City Council, this is my personal opinion, not the opinion of the other councilors or the city.
Grand Junction’s controversy about prayer before City Council meetings can be celebrated — the fact that we can disagree and debate is a privilege — but it would be tragic if the result of free thinking is that this worthy tradition is prohibited.
This week, a satanist “prayed” that our city would be blessed. In my view, this proves that a grand separation exists between what the state accepts as religious and what my church accepts as truth. The tradition of prayer before each meeting, however, is founded on bedrock principles that we are endowed with unalienable rights by our Creator. It is good to be reminded of these rights wherever rulers gather to make decisions that impact the governed. It is healthy to debate the true nature of our Creator. I am less enthusiastic about forgetting God altogether, a feeling that was apparently shared by our Founding Fathers.
Many, if not most of the immigrants came to the New World to flee religious persecution. The monarchy dictated how they worshiped via the State Church. On Aug.15, 1789, James Madison’s papers indicate that he intended the Establishment Clause prevent the government imposing religious beliefs on individuals. The entry says: “Mr. Madison said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience ...”
Grand Junction’s 2008 Resolution 114-08 creates a process for random selection of organizations to offer invocations at City Council meetings. The First Amendment to our Constitution allows for this process and also allows any organization that wants to participate in freedom of speech and free exercise of religious belief. None of us will always agree to all of the words said in prayer, but we can choose to participate or not. We have the freedom to physically (or mentally) leave the room. It is my personal opinion that the process established by the City Council meets the intent of our unique and amazing Constitution.
Today’s controversy threatens to eliminate the tradition of prayer before each meeting. How do we decide which traditions are worthy of preservation? We should consider the principle on which the tradition was founded. In the case of an invocation at City Council or other public meetings, the tradition is based on founding principles of our very existence as a country. God, our Creator, is not a footnote during the time our Founding Fathers were considering this issue. God is central to the American experiment. That makes public prayer a tradition to maintain, in my opinion. Some traditions are really a matter of preference. For example, ham or turkey for Thanksgiving? Preferences are often good to express but not worth fighting for. Preferences are things we can agree to disagree on.
Bedrock principles are worth having a robust yet civil debate and lengthy discussion about before compromising, changing, or agreeing to disagree upon. This is why who you vote into office matters. Four Grand Junction City Council members could change our long standing policy from inviting organizations to offer the invocation via a lottery process to a moment of silence.
In my opinion, this would be a tragedy. While it won’t change the prayers that I offer over the city, the council, and the people we touch, it is a principled tradition that is worthy of saving.
The U.S. Constitution is revered because through it we have the opportunity to even have this debate. I’m not saying the Constitution can’t be changed, but there is a process for making significant changes and that process is not benign neglect. As human beings, we’re never going agree on everything; by nature we want to be right and unique. We have to appreciate the spirited debate and sacrifices of those who brought us this freedom to disagree, even about critical faith issues. I believe that God gave us free will. I am hopeful that our leaders will allow us to keep it. I admire citizens who are willing to stand up and participate in the civil discourse and decisions of the day, even those with whom I disagree. We live in this awesome country that allows us to speak our minds freely and pursue our version of happiness. It’s up to us as citizens to ensure we maintain these rights.
God bless you, God bless this city and God bless the USA ... in my opinion.