For millions of Americans, prayer-public or private-is an important part of their lives. It's a form of intimate communications between self and deity.
Americans of faith pray and worship in many ways and places-churches, mosques, synagogues, or ashrams, to name a few. Yet, for a vocal number of Americans, prayer does not belong in the public sphere; it belongs behind closed doors.
Last week's Vermont Town Meeting Day event in the Town of Franklin produced one of the more interesting happenings to occur in years.
It took only one resident, a voter, to get a town and an entire state talking about the issue of public prayer. With a single action, one meeting attendee placed this controversial topic front and center inVermont.
Last January, a similar incident happened in Elizabethtown, N.Y. Some folks got riled up when Essex County Clerk Joe Provoncha, a Catholic lay minister, led the Essex County Board of Supervisors in public prayer. In that case, the board cited the U.S. Supreme Court's Marsh v. Chambers case of 1983. The Court ruled that beginning a legislative meeting with a prayer is protected by the U.S. Constitution. In fact, the precedent goes back to 1774 when the Continental Congress began its sessions with a prayer.
Last week, it was Marilyn Hackett of Franklin, Vt., who challenged public prayer.
She decided that-after warning Town Moderator Tim Magnant to stop leading a prayer before the start of every town meeting-it was time to call in the big guns. With the help of the Vermont chapter of the ACLU, Hackett is suing the town and Magnant.
"Article 3 of the Vermont Constitution guarantees that no one may be compelled to attend or support religious worship," said Julie Kalish, an ACLU attorney representing Hackett. "The problem is that the defendants insist upon including prayer as part of town meeting even though voters like Ms. Hackett must attend town meeting in order to vote on all the warned items."
Couldn't Ms. Hackett and Mr. Magnant have sat down and reasoned out a solution rather than call in ACLU lawyers to attract attention?
Isn't religious speech free speech? Does Marsh v. Chambers apply to Town Meeting gatherings as it does to legislative meetings?
As we have seen in a variety of cases across the nation, definitions about free speech and religious expression in America have been shifting for more than 200 years.
Conservative voices have frequently accused the ACLUof selective reasoning-turning a deaf ear to religious people when their civil liberties are abused.
While the ACLU is a liberal organization and a strong defender of church-state separation, it has also been a friend of churches and people of faith under assault. Yet we never hear about these kinds of ACLUcases.
Here's an abridged list, courtesy of blogger Sean Aqui, that supports a side of the ACLUwe rarely hear about:
2004: The Indiana ACLU defended the rights of a Baptist minister to preach his message on public streets.
2003: The ACLU of Rhode Island supported the rights of carolers to sing outside a women's prison on Christmas Eve. The prison officials backed down and agreed to let the caroling take place.
2002: The ACLU of Massachusetts filed a brief supporting the right of the Church of the Good News to run highly visible advertisements criticizing the secularization of Christmas, and promoting Christianity as the "one true religion," after the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Agency refused to allow the ads on subways.
There may never be a final solution to the 200-year-old plus battle over defining freedom of speech and religious expression in the public square in America. And maybe that's as the Founders intended. For as President U.S. Grant said to Congress about the issue in 1875, "Let's declare church and state forever separate and distinct, but each free within their proper spheres."