In a bizarre twist of political opportunism, both the Republican Party and Obama joined forces recently to file briefs with the Supreme Court in support of the city of Greece, New York in their Supreme Court appeal over a federal ruling that their council meeting prayers endorsed the Cristian religion. Both feel the lower court overstepped its bounds and that Christian prayer hardly constitutes an endorsement.
Essentially, according to Obama's Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli, having Christian prayers isn't an endorsement simply because most of the speakers are Christian and the prayers are sectarians. Otherwise, he argues, the government would have to police all prayers. But, even to my Christian ears, the arguments seem lame. More than lame. They sound like something dumped into a final essay by a college kid pre-occupied with other matters and, forced to take the final or finding his funding cut off, knew he had to write something.
Nor does the Greece council's argument that they occasionally invite a speaker from another denomination hold water. Throwing a scrap to the other dog doesn't mean you don't favor yours.
Think of it like this. In a movie, when you see the hero drinking Coke all the time, or finding the bad guy using a Mac Book Pro, this is considered a product endorsement. It doesn't matter if one of the extras can be seen with a Pepsi and a Dell in the back of the food court during the chase scene. Comedian Mike Meyers made this point very clear in his Wayne's World movies.
In the same way, a news organization's endorsement goes to the candidate blessed with the most positive coverage. In fact, Republicans harp on this constantly when they claim the media, which covers them constantly, has a liberal bias. It doesn't matter if Ron Paul gets a story here or there. When Mitt Romney is featured front and center in the news, he has the media's endorsement as the favorite to win, if not necessarily as the best choice.
So why does it matter who opens prayer? Because, like it or not, opening prayer is a compulsory exercise. People in attendance don't get to opt out. The people who schedule prayer can deny it all they want, but they deceive only themselves.
One person praying in public is not compulsory. It would not be compulsory for someone to approach the podium and say to an audience, “Would you give us a moment of silence?” But to say, “Please take a moment while we pray,” forces everyone to join in the exercise. And Jesus never made anyone do anything. Jesus was about free will.
To compel people to pray, and then set the agenda by endorsing one faith, albeit a broad faith like Christianity, violates the establishment clause of the Constitution and it violates the spirit of Christianity which leaves each of us free to follow Jesus or choose a different path.
So if Greece, or any city council, insists on prayer, how can they avoid endorsement without Verilli's government police at their shoulder? Open their prayers to all. Every week invite someone from a different faith entirely. This week invite a Rabbi, next week an Imam. Don't forget a Shaman, and your Universalist/Unitarian. I'm sure there are some Pagans out there glad to lead solstice prayers. And I know a few atheists who would lead prayers on principle. Once every six weeks, just have every one in the audience throw their name in a hat and draw. Have an entire meeting of open mike prayers once every six months.
You can even follow the example from the Friends. Sit in silence for a minute. Or conduct the entire meeting in silence. You might even get something useful done.