A recent ruling by the Supreme Court has raised once again the issue of prayer in the public sphere (perhaps more accurately the civic sphere). While the ruling itself arguably does not have a huge impact, it does a lot to create a national dialogue around how we talk about God. One of the issues in the case (and a point of contention between the majority and minority opinions) was how neutral the language around a divine figure needed to be a public prayer. Given that many of the prayers in question clearly used Christ-centric language did they alienate non-Christians and serve to implicit create a sense of a government backed religion?
Those who disagree with the ruling might still find themselves divided upon the solution to this problem. Some would argue that the solution is simple to use a more generic form when praying. Rather than assuming a Christian audience and using Christian terminology as was done in the town meetings at issue, perhaps simply using more generic terms like God, or Divine, and avoiding references to specific religious views and values (like Christ's death) would solve the problem.
Another solution would be to argue for a clean break between religion and the civic sphere. Since even prayer itself assumes a level of religious value not universal in our nation and since we are dedicated to being an a-theistic state, it would be better to not pray at all. People are free to offer their own prayers whenever they like, but an official prayer at the start of a meeting still creates a government sanctioning of some sort and potentially creates a normative behavior that is not universally held. Even this has consequences since NOT praying before a meeting is creating its own cultural standard and pattern of behavior. It is awkward to be the only not praying AND it is awkward to be the only one praying (try it in a restaurant sometime and see what I mean).
There are real benefits and dangers to allowing space for prayer in the midst of civic meetings. Some of us might be comforted by the idea that Congress (with its single digit approval rating) was consulting some sort of higher power for help. Others however might feel that their approval of Congress is based on the fact that its members seem beholden to a religious agenda instead of one that benefits the country. I think it is safe to say that almost no one wants to be the Jews in Nazi Germany, but most of the Germans did not start out thinking they would be the bad guys either.
Can we protect the freedoms of both the religious and the non-religious? I have strong concerns about state sponsored religion, but I also think that the notion of separation of church and state was created with a poor understanding of faith in mind. Faith is not simply allegiance to a particular denomination or religion, nor is it something that can be turned on and off like a cell phone on an airplane. It is an important part of people's identities. Denying that is to ask people to deny and hide part of who they are. I am not sure I am okay with the government prohibiting prayer in the civic arena because that feels equally unwelcoming. I am also aware that my own views on the importance of prayer influence my views on this issue. For me I see the value of prayer and also communal prayer. Believing in the benefits it is easy to overlook the harms. By the same extension I can see that those who find no value in prayer might simply be concerned with the harm it does. It is not an easy impasse to get around but I think we achieve it by leaving space for everyone. We do not mandate prayer in our civic organizations nor do we prohibit it. We don't require prayers to be made in a certain way nor do we forbid them from being done in another format. We cannot live into the idea of "out of many one" by denying religion a space in the civic sphere but nor can we do it by simply establishing a civic religion of the majority.