If we've learned anything from the controversy over the May 6 National Day of Prayer, recently declared unconstitutional by a federal judge in Wisconsin, it may be that religion prompts disagreement, lots of it.
And when it comes to the politics of religion, little is more divisive than the perennial argument about the First Amendment and what it does or doesn't allow.
So it comes as no surprise that when U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb wrote that the government cannot "use its authority to try to influence an individual's decision whether and when to pray," the outcry was immediate and loud.
The offense to some people of faith was exacerbated when evangelist Franklin Graham, who described Islam as "a very evil and wicked religion" in 2001 and has continued to criticize the religion in the years since, was uninvited to a Pentagon Prayer Day. The military justified the move by asserting its inclusiveness and declaring its "appreciation of all faiths."
Shirley Dobson, chairwoman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force, the government-designated body that manages the event, issued a fiery response.
"The assault on religious freedom and people of faith in this country continues at a fever pitch, orchestrated by atheist groups, and perpetuated by the media, the government, the judiciary, and now, by the Pentagon," Dobson wrote. "Specifically, prayers uttered by those in official positions are being met with hostility, or they have been banned outright. This opposition represents a radical change of direction for this great land."
Whether it's a radical change, however, depends on whom you ask.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in an 1802 letter to the Rev. Samuel Miller, "Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it. ... Civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."
In other words, Jefferson, the first to elaborate on the "wall of separation" between church and state, and Truman, who in 1952, in an anti-communist flourish, made the federal government the official sponsor of the National Day of Prayer, don't seem to agree. Many others also don't agree.
Jerry Young, president of the Charleston Leadership Foundation, which sponsors the Lowcountry's Annual Prayer Breakfast, said a national prayer day provides a reason for people of faith to get together. Forbidding it doesn't make sense, he said. There are other religious holidays acknowledged, endorsed or promoted by government. "Would you eliminate Christmas?"
What's more, Young said, the National Day of Prayer is not obligatory. People who are not religious don't have to participate. "I don't see that it violates the spirit of separation," he said.
In response to the recent federal ruling, S.C. Rep. Chip Limehouse is filing legislation that would establish a state Day of Prayer to coincide with the national event.
"We can't have federal judges telling us from the bench what we can and can't believe. This is an assault on prayer and an assault on religion," he told the press, though Crabb said nothing about "what we can and can't believe," limiting her opinion to government's role in promoting religion.
Adam Rosenbaum, Conservative rabbi of Charleston's Synagogue Emanu-El, said the principle of church-state separation "shouldn't necessarily be absolute," yet society must exercise caution when upholding it.
"One should be very careful, should there be a dominant faith, that that faith isn't being imposed on other groups," he said. One danger of stirring up a First Amendment controversy, he added, is that it could "make people less sympathetic to the positive goals of religion."
"When government gets in the mix, one needs to be very cautious about the message that resonates with the public," Rosenbaum said. "Part of the job of good government is to look out for the needs of the people. Should it wind up being exclusionary, that is not the right message for anyone."
The Rev. Dr. Clinton Brantley, pastor of St. Matthew Baptist Church on Reynolds Avenue in North Charleston, said it's OK for government to sponsor religion if it stops short of imposing specific religious views on those who disagree with them. An Air Force chaplain for 22 years, Brantley pointed out that the U.S. military has sponsored religion for most of its history, hosting ecumenical annual prayer breakfasts.
The separation principle is fine, "But at the same time we claim to be a religious nation," he said. "We ought to have that opportunity to pray whenever we feel the need to."
Herb Silverman, president of the Secular Coalition for America and a Charleston resident, noted that the Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers recently published survey results showing that 23.4 percent of military personnel claim no religious affiliation, and that more identify as atheists than as Hindus, Buddhists, Jews or Muslims, making nonbelievers the second most populous group in the U.S. armed forces after Christians.
How would people feel about a National Day of Nonprayer, or a National Day of Reason, he asked. "After all, who can be opposed to reason?" Nonprayer wouldn't be required; people still could pray if they wanted to, he said.
"We have a secular government that's supposed to neither promote nor prevent religious beliefs," Silverman said. "Individuals can do whatever they want; governments should not sponsor national prayer."
He said that when Army spokesman Col. Tom Collins announced that Graham was uninvited to the Pentagon's May 6 prayer breakfast, citing "appreciation of all faiths" as the reason, he expressed an unfortunate hypocrisy. The military was not appreciating its large number of nonbelievers, Silverman said.
"We have these controversies because different people have different religious beliefs," he said. "You're not going to get a prayer that's inclusive to all."
John Simpkins, a constitutional law expert and professor at the Charleston School of Law, said two legal tests typically are applied to cases such as this one: the so-called Lemon test and a determination of whether governmental coercion is involved.
The Lemon test, named for the 1971 Lemon v. Kutzman case, holds that the government's action must have a secular purpose, cannot advance or inhibit religion and must not result in excessive entanglement with religion. A government-backed national prayer appears to violate this test, Simpkins said.
But is the government's involvement with the National Day of Prayer coercive? Simpkins expressed doubt.
And so the First Amendment debate continues.
Crabb said the National Day of Prayer "goes beyond mere 'acknowledgment' of religion because its sole purpose is to encourage all citizens to engage in prayer, an inherently religious exercise that serves no secular function in this context. In this instance, the government has taken sides on a matter that must be left to individual conscience."
But, she added, her decision would not take effect until the appeals process is exhausted.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or firstname.lastname@example.org.