Dear Mr. Mayor

May 23, 2010

Dear Mayor Bill Knight:

Thank you for your service to Greensboro. In my church and my home, we pray for our public servants like you and the Greensboro City Council. I know serving as mayor of a city as large and complex as Greensboro is no easy task, and is often thankless.

I am writing to express my disagreement over your decision to add prayer to city council meetings. I am a Christian minister, and I pray like I breathe. Yet I believe that this decision is divisive, exclusive, unnecessary, diminishing of prayer itself, and finally un-American. While I doubt my reasons will change your mind, I trust you will listen to one citizen’s point of view.

I consider this decision divisive because it will likely be soon challenged in court. As you know, Forsyth County is currently being sued by its citizens for including public prayer in the county commissioners meeting. In the Forsyth County case, the residents have prevailed against the commissioners twice (largely because Jesus Christ was mentioned by name in a majority of the invocations). Given the current economic shortfall the city of Greensboro is experiencing, I doubt there is a surplus of money available to defend your decision in court. According to the News and Record, city council members have not debated the plan to add an invocation to their meeting, although you informed them of your decision. Councilman Robbie Perkins said the innovation is a move in the wrong direction. “Why do we want to do this?” he said. “Are we returning to the 1950?” So your decision is divisive in at least two aspects: it’s likely to produce legal challenges and the unilateral nature of your decision has council members questioning its wisdom.

Secondly, it is clear to me that establishing prayer at the beginning of the city council’s meeting will exclude some citizens of Greensboro. You say in your interview with the paper that “We all believe in something.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Many good citizens of our city are either atheistic or agnostic, and they should not be excluded from the very first minute of every city council meeting. I’m sure you know good people who believe neither in deity, god, goddess, or gods. Many atheists and agnostics are excellent people of conscience and good citizens (probably in the same proportion as people of faith). Some of them are leaders in our city and they should not be excluded in this manner.

From my perspective, God gives people the freedom to believe or not to believe, to pray or not to pray. Our mayor should do the same. This was the genius of a moment of silence: people who wanted to pray could pray; people who wanted to just take a few deep breaths could do that. By replacing the practice of a moment of silence (a successful practice for 20 years in our city) with a time of prayer, you have succeeded in violating the convictions of some good and thoughtful citizens of our fair city.

A third serious objection I have to your decision is that is unnecessary. We Christians believe that we can pray to God at any time and in any place, so there is no real threat to prayer when the Establishment Clause is interpreted to prohibit prayers in certain government-sponsored contexts (1). Public prayers spoken aloud at government meetings or public school graduations or other places (beyond gatherings of those who share the same religious tradition) tend to draw everyone present into the prayer and threaten to violate the consciences of non-believers.

The issue most often arises in the public schools and in the legislative arena where some want to assert a tradition of prayer to solemnize the event. In the public schools arena, the U.S. Supreme Court has drawn some clear lines, finding school sponsored prayer to violate the constitution, while upholding the rights of students to initiate prayer in ways that do not disrupt others or interfere with other school activities (2). Students may pray either audibly or silently, yet are subject to the same rules of order as apply to other speech in these locations.

Controversies continue to arise over the issue of legislative prayer. More than two decades ago, the Supreme Court upheld the Nebraska legislature’s practice of opening with a prayer offered by a state-employed chaplain. Rejecting an Establishment Clause challenge, the Court based its decision on the historical record of prayer in public legislatures that showed such prayer was “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country (3).” The practice escaped a finding of “establishment” because it was a longstanding tradition at the time of the First Amendment’s passage, the prayers were “nonsectarian,” and the context was less threatening than government prayers in a public school classroom. In the words of  Marsh, such prayers are “simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

For many religious liberty advocates such as Baptists like myself, however, the practice of official prayers at governmental meetings remains awkward at best, illustrating the point that just because something is constitutional does not make it right. Many legislative bodies avoid the practice entirely or opt for a moment of silence. Others enact and follow guidelines to stay squarely within  Marsh. Some employ a system of speaker rotation among the elected officials or from local clergy to avoid the appearance of a denominational preference.

Still, legislative prayers continue to pose difficulties and continue to be the target of litigation. These difficulties are evident in recent cases working their way through the federal courts that may eventually lead to a reconsideration of the constitutional status quo. For those who are most watchful about separating the responsibilities of the government from the religious practices of the citizens it serves, the practice is something to be avoided or strictly constrained.

Which leads me to a fourth concern I have: public prayers like these diminish prayer itself. I believe that prayer is simply talking with and listening to God. For Christians like myself, this is not just any God, but the God we have come to understand in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus is the one who came to reveal God, we believe. However, public prayer such as you are suggesting cannot be sectarian in order to be legal. Again, according to the News and Record article of your decision, “The person leading the prayer can mention God but can’t invoke the name of Jesus or Mohammed.” Nor can the person mention Allah, Shiva, Vishnu, YHWH, Baal, Thor, Odin, Satan, Zeus, Venus, or any other specific god or goddess. What then is the purpose of a watered down communication with an unnamed deity? And for those Greensboro citizens who are polytheists—believing in more than one god—how can it be made clear which deity they are addressing? The result of such prayers is that they become merely a custom rather communications with a living God who changes the ones who pray and influences people and events.

Jesus himself warned against praying in public (Matt. 6) and against empty prayers. I am extremely uncomfortable with prayers that are merely functions of the city government. Prayer belongs in temples, churches, synagogues, mosques, wats, basilicas, mandair, kingdom halls, jinjas, hofs, and every other place of worship. Prayer does not belong as officially sponsored events by a city of diverse citizens. Most of all prayer belongs in the hearts and minds of devote followers, and on the lips of those who believe and follow a particular path of faith. Prayers by those who do not believe nor follow make a mockery of that faith, in the same way those who say the pledge of alliance without meaning it makes a mockery of American citizenship. Not everything Greensboro does is God’s will or purpose, yet the present of prayer before city council suggests that what the council does is blessed by God.

Perhaps you find it odd that an American Baptist pastor would be so against city sponsored prayer. But, as you well know, it was Baptists who fought so hard in the early days of our nation to keep references to Christ out of the Constitution —not because they didn’t believe in Christ, but precisely because they did so fervently.

I pray, as most Baptists do. I pray not because prayer is magical (it is not), or because there is a right way to pray (there is not), or that there is some kind of power inherent in prayer (there is not). I pray because I have a relationship with a God who loves all people and all creation, even people as flawed as I. I pray to deepen that relationship, and most especially so that God might change me. This is what we Baptist mean when we say that prayer does not change things; rather prayer is talking to a God who changes things, most notably me.

Lastly, in light of all I have mentioned, I believe this type of prayer is un-American. (Note that I am not saying that you are un-American, rather that this type of prayer is.) I make this point because you said in Tuesday’s News and Record. “I think this [public prayer at city council meetings] adds a very distinctly American quality …” I beg to differ.

As Brent Walker has observed, we Baptists often hold up Roger Williams’ “hedge or wall of separation” and point to Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association where he talked about his “sovereign reverence” for the wall of separation. But we often forget about the writings of the father of our Constitution, James Madison, who, in a letter to Robert Walsh in 1819, observed that “the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state.”

Walker goes on to quote Alexis de Tocqueville, the French visitor to America in the 1800s, inDemocracy in America, a work often cited by those who would disparage separation, when he writes favorably of it:

In France, I had seen the spirits of religion and freedom almost always marching in opposite directions. In America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land. My longing to understand the reason for this phenomenon increased daily. To find this out, I questioned the faithful of all communions; I particularly sought the society of clergymen, who are the depositaries of the various creeds and have a personal interest in their survival. As a practicing Catholic I was particularly close to the Catholic priest, with some of whom I established a certain intimacy… I found that they all agreed with each other except about details; all thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.(4)

In my study of history, I believe what is uniquely American is the separation of church and state, that each person gets to worship, pray, and believe (or not) as he or she sees fit. Now, I know that a few believe that church-state separation only keeps the government from setting up a single national church or showing preference among denominations or faith groups, but not from aiding all religions on a non-preferential basis. But this is not true.

Again, as Brent Walker as observed, if the Founders wanted simply to ban a single, official national church, they did not do a very good job of saying so in the First Amendment. An early draft of the First Amendment read in part: “The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established.” This draft was passed over. And, the Founders had ample opportunity to state that the government should be allowed to promote all religion on an even-handed, non-preferential basis. But the first Congress repeatedly rejected versions of the First Amendment that would have explicitly permitted such non-preferential aid. For example, the Senate rejected the proposed language, “Congress shall make no law establishing one religious sect or society in preference to others.” And they did it two more times with provisions embodying similar non-preferential language, such as “Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another.” (5)

No, the Founders adopted a more expansive amendment to keep the new federal government from making laws even “respecting an establishment of religion.” Religion generally, not a religion, or a national religion, but no religion at all, period. They did not merely want to keep the federal government from setting up an official national church or to ban denominational discrimination.

Walker goes on to say that, “In addition to constitutional history, there are practical reasons to reject the ability of government to aid all religion on a non-preferential basis. In our pluralistic country with its dizzying religious diversity, it is practically impossible to aid all religions evenhandedly. Inevitably, government will pick and choose a preferred religion, and it almost always will pick the majority, politically powerful, religious tradition for preferred treatment.”

Your decision to introduce public prayer to start city council meetings violates this separation, and is not in the best interests of Greensboro. I urge you to reconsider your actions. Thank you for your time.

Michael Usey
Pastor, College Park Church


(1) This point and the next three paragraphs are from the article, “Public Prayer,” on the website of the Baptist Joint Committee.

(2) See  Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962);   Abington School District v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203 (1963);  Board of Ed. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226 (1990) .

(3) Marsh v. Chambers , 463 U.S. 783 (1983).

(4) p. 295, Geo. Laurence trans., J.P. Meyer ed., 1969. Cited, John Witte, “That Serpentine Wall,” Vol. 101, U. Mich. L., Rev. 1898 (May 2003). Cited by Walker, Lie #2.

(5) This paragraph and the next two are directly from Lecture at McAfee School of Theology, “Answering the Top 10 Lies About Church and State” (September 7, 2005), by J. Brent Walker, BJC Executive Director. See Lie #5.