By Dan Barker
Special to The Commercial Appeal
The city of Memphis cannot use the 1983 Marsh v Chambers Supreme Court decision as a defense to the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s complaint about prayers before council meetings.
Marsh, which allowed the Nebraska legislature to continue with attenuated ceremonial prayers, was decided on very narrow grounds, none of which excuses Memphis.
Nebraska had been praying since the beginning, and Memphis only since 1968, we understand. Such prayers, by the way, did not stop the killing of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or prevent Memphis from falling into serious problems, but in any event, tradition does not change unlawful to lawful.
If something is unconstitutional — such as the segregation of public schools was — then the “honored” longevity of the unlawful practice only makes it worse.
In Marsh, the actions were restricted to the legislators praying among themselves, not directed at the public. In Memphis, prayers are inflicted upon everyone in the room, many of whom do not believe in prayer, or in the denomination or god invoked.
In Marsh, the prayers were excused because they were entirely nonsectarian, not mentioning any particular deity. In Memphis, prayers almost always end “in Jesus’ name.” Ministers often introduce prayers with a sermonette affirming a Christian doctrine, such as the claim that “the Bible is the inspired word of God.”
Marsh grudgingly allowed the Nebraska prayers as a “tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held,” but since 1983 the beliefs of the people of Memphis have become much more diverse. Today there are many more non-Christians and nonbelievers in the room who are turned into “political outsiders” by such prayers, as Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor phrased it.
Since Marsh permitted only a “tolerable” acknowledgment, that affirms that usually such prayers are not to be tolerated. Memphis, more than almost any other city, egregiously fails all of the tests of Marsh.
We at FFRF think Marsh v Chambers was a bad decision. There should be no governmental prayer in America. But Marsh is now the law of the land, a tiny exception carved into Establishment Clause law that rightfully prohibits the government from promoting religion, a law that Memphis should respect. Memphians who believe Marsh allows them to continue praying are like the fellow who pretends that since most police officers will not ticket you for driving 4 or 5 miles an hour over the speed limit, it is OK to go 20 miles over.
Memphis makes it even worse by awarding “Chaplain of the Day” certificates and goodie bags to the invited clergy. That is 30 miles over the limit.
Responding to our complaint, City Councilman Jim Strickland said: “We’ve got blight and poverty and a declining population. That’s where we focus as a council, on those important issues that really affect people’s daily lives.” If that is true, then don’t fight this lawsuit. You have more important things to worry about, and better ways to spend limited finances.
Prayer makes no difference. Pray privately, if you must, but secular City Council meetings are not religious services. Get off your knees and get to work.
Dan Barker is co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, and author of “Godless: How An Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists.”