The Supreme Court, Civic Prayer and Chaplains

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court decided that the city council of Greece, New York does not violate the constitution by opening its meetings with prayers provided by local clergy, the majority of whom are Christian. The complainants had sought relief in the form of a requirement for “non-sectarian prayers.” Howard Friedman at Religion Clause quotes Justice Kennedy writing for the majority.

An insistence on nonsectarian or ecumenical prayer as a single, fixed standard is not consistent with the tradition of legislative prayer outlined in the Court’s cases…. To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, a rule that would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of nei­ther editing or approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact….

Respondents argue, in effect, that legislative prayer may be addressed only to a generic God. The law and the Court could not draw this line for each specific prayer or seek to require ministers to set aside their nuanced and deeply personal beliefs for vague and artificial ones. There is doubt, in any event, that consensus might be reached as to what qualifies as generic or nonsectarian….

And, significantly,

The principal audience for these invocations is not, indeed, the public but lawmakers themselves, who may find that a moment of prayer or quiet reflection sets the mind to a higher purpose and thereby eases the task of governing…. The analysis would be different if town board members directed the public to participate in the prayers, …

You can read the entire decision here: Town of Greece, New York v. Galloway et al.

So, “sectarian prayer” is permissible in some circumstances at government meetings. What does this mean for Army chaplains? In my opinion, not much. And the word “opinion” certainly applies to all that follows!

On one hand, the Court was surely right in saying that the government is in no position to define or prescribe what a “non-sectarian prayer” might be. On the other hand, the court’s decision was related to volunteer clergy providing invocations for council members at town council meetings. As government employees, military chaplains are in a significantly different position. It’s not just that chaplains represent the government in a way that volunteer clergy do not. Rather, the Army employs chaplains specifically to provide free exercise opportunities for those in military service. It’s not the responsibility of volunteer clergy to provide for the needs of the audience at government meetings. That is, however, precisely the chaplain’s job.

While the Court’s decision potentially broadens what a chaplain might say in a ceremonial prayer without causing legal trouble for the Army, that’s never been the issue as far as I was concerned. In my mind, the question never has been, “What am I allowed to say” or “What can I get away with” but “what is the best way to offer the members of this assembled group an opportunity to pray on this particular occasion?” I choose my words accordingly.

Some years ago I wrote a paper describing how I try to craft my prayer at the intersection of three circles of interest:

  • my faith commitments and my role as an ordained minister
  • my military commission and my governmental role of providing free exercise for all
  • the military purpose of the occasion

Chaplain Prayer at Military CeremoniesMy prayer should be fully consistent with my religious commitments, but in the space of 30 to 60 seconds no one can touch on every subject in prayer that their beliefs might suggest. From the great treasure of my faith, I select that which is most appropriate to the occasion AND that which best offers the other people present an opportunity to connect with my prayer. To offer the members of a diverse audience an opportunity to pray “in their own tradition” as I pray, I select my words carefully. That doesn’t mean that I don’t use ideas, words and images out of my own faith tradition; I do. It simply means that I do my best to craft a prayer that a broad segment of the audience can also use as their own.

The Army chaplaincy is used to thinking in terms of “perform” (the services, rites and sacraments which I personally perform for the members of my own faith group) and “provide” (the opportunities I provide for those who belong to other faith groups). If I am going to say a prayer at a military event, I see the words of my prayer as an opportunity to both perform and provide. The members of the audience are only going to hear one prayer. I want to offer them a genuine prayer that resonates with my own heart and I want to give as many people as possible an opportunity to pray in accordance with their own beliefs as they hear my words.

To accomplish this feat is an art, not a science – and it’s certainly not a matter of law. Don’t ask me, “Can I say this” or “Can I say that?” As a supervisory chaplain, I have never told another chaplain what they could or could not say in a prayer, either before or after the fact. I would also resist commanders who wanted to censor a chaplain’s prayer.

For one thing, censorship doesn’t work. Even if someone were to come up with a long list of “sectarian” words that I could not say, I’m pretty sure that I could still craft a very narrow prayer to which only a small segment of my own denomination might assent. On the other hand, I can use a wide variety of thoughts, words and images from my own religious tradition and still craft a prayer that connects cognitively and emotionally with a large segment of a pluralistic audience.

So, I won’t ever tell subordinates what NOT to say in a prayer at a military ceremony. Instead, I point them toward what I believe to be the proper object of their activity: prayers that are faithful to their own religious commitments, that meet the needs of the broadest possible segment of the audience and that are appropriate to the occasion. The question to ask is this: What do I want my prayer to do for the people who hear it, and do my words accomplish that aim?

See Also:
Human Need and Prayer at Military Ceremonies
Chaplain Prayer at Military Ceremonies

UPDATE:: See more of my comments on the Supreme Court decision at:

Pluralism or Non-Sectarianism: The Supreme Court on Government Invocations

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