The recent controversy surrounding the Family Research Council's criticism of a Hindu priest's invocation before a session of Congress highlighted a variety of truths. The Religious Right's hostility towards non-Christian minorities was the point that got most of the attention, but it also raises questions anew about the appropriateness of officially approved prayers before governmental meetings.
It becomes increasingly evident with every passing example that when elected officials, whether they serve in the U.S. Congress or on a local city council, try to combine official business with religious worship, divisive conflicts inevitably arise.
Just since September, two other incidents have occurred to emphasize this point. In Dallas, a religious leader from the Wiccan community was invited to deliver a prayer before a meeting of the city council, then was abruptly disinvited. When the Wiccan leader called to reschedule, he was told nothing would be available for the rest of the year.
The same week, in Warren, Mich., a suburb of Detroit, city council members voted unanimously to schedule invocations before meetings. Local residents spoke out against the proposal, but representatives chose to mix religion and politics anyway.
One resident thought it was sacrilegious to invoke God's name in a council room where politicians "lie and deceive." Another local woman went further and said an exorcist was needed to "rid the room of the demons."
Controversies like these are remarkably easy to avoid. Elected officials can simply stay out of the religion business.
In a diverse society such as ours, no single prayer is capable of reflecting the religious faith of all our citizens. Accordingly, government bodies ought to limit official meetings to legitimate public concerns and leave religious expression up to individual Americans.
Official prayers don't do any favors for religion. When prayer becomes an official practice, religious beliefs are at risk of being politicized. Furthermore, by endorsing worship at governmental meetings, politicians are ignoring religious diversity, undercutting tolerance and dividing local communities.
To protect the rights of everyone, politicians should remain neutral on matters of faith, and allow each of us to make our own decisions.