I think by now you can infer that I am detached from any religion. To be honest, I was once almost fanatically engaged in religious activities. But in recent years, I have grown from apathetic to almost completely detached from it. I would not want to delve on the whys for now because I can’t even point it out. Suffice it is to say though that I have a secularist view in general, especially in government.
Earlier this day, I bumped in to the news that the United States Supreme Court is hearing a case on prayers said before a town assembly. It interested me mostly because I kept hearing objections about prayer said in government agencies. To be specific, these objections say that, at least for our country, prayers have no place in the halls of our supposed secularist government. With the SCOTUS hearing the case, I thought the hearing will give more clarity to the “controversy” on prayer. I downloaded the audio recording of the oral argument and listened to it. (Transcript of the oral arguments can be found here.)
It makes sense :If our Constitution, and so does the United States’, prohibits the government to recognize the State’s official religion; then our government should be secular in nature (US calls it Establishment Clause in the First Amendment; Philippines calls it the Non-establishment Clause, Art III Sec 5). In Town of Greece v Galloway, an atheist and a jew are protesting the prayer said before a legislative session (The case introduces the term legislative prayer to refer to prayers said before a legislative session). They argue that legislative prayers are offending their religious belief, or the lack thereof. They further argue that prayer is similar to endorsing a religion which is directly contradictory to the Non-Establishment Clause.
In the oral argument, it is clear that the justices have a problem with the proposal of the respondents to have an inclusive prayer– that is, a prayer that would not offend any religious beliefs, even the atheists. Respondents proposed several prayers that to them are not offensive. The problem the justices is having, as Justice Kennedy aired, is that telling the government what to include or what not to include in the prayer gives a problem with respect to Free Exercise of Religion. Also, some of the justices thought that having guidelines in constructing a prayer to be delivered before a legislative session is tantamount to government editing the content of the prayer. Further, asking a chaplain from a certain religious denomination to recite a prayer contrary to his belief is also against Free Exercise.
When I was a public school student, the teachers, mostly Catholic, would ask us to stand and bow our heads in prayer before we conduct the class. Of course I would stand, and so I did in fear that my classmate or my teacher would take it against me if I would remain seated (which is of course tantamount to disrespecting religion as my teacher would surely think). .That is another arguement of the petitioners: That it is impossible for non-participation to not attract attention, which is tantamount to coercion. It does make sense! However, when we look at Senate and House where a person would usually deliver a prayer, it is almost impossible to attract attention for non-participation (mainly because there are more people involved). It appears, then, that the difference between the two situation lies on the number of people present.
Before listening to the oral arguments, I thought that atheists fussing about prayers said before or after a government function is just a trifle. I still think it is trifle, mainly because the more important part of the government function is the function itself. Is the prayer affecting the function? I do not think so. I think people fighting for secularism could let these prayers past. While I totally get where they are coming from, I think it is a total waste of time fussing about a 5-minute speech addressed to some almighty being.
I do not personally think that prayers are intended to inflict offense to other persons. If the prayer is said–imploring whoever it is– to give guidance in the conduct of the said function, then I do not think it should be construed as offensive. I have read threads and debates over this issue. The problem with the people arguing against them is that they seem to be so extremist in their view it highlights their hatred towards religion. If they are in full track towards secularism, then I think they are still premature. After all, I personally think that it is vital to respect other’s religious belief, and secularism does not mean eradication of all of religious beliefs.