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OP-ED | Prayer On Government Property? A ‘Sanctimonious Windbag’ Weighs In

by | May 8, 2015 5:30am () Comments | Commenting has expired | Share
Posted to: Civil Liberties, Opinion, Religion, Bloomfield, Enfield, Middletown

There are a handful of hot-button issues that never fail to arouse the ire of the masses in the letters to the editor sections and in the Internet comment threads: Race, abortion, guns, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama come to mind. Now I can add one more to that list: religious freedom.

The last time I addressed this topic was almost three years ago when the Enfield Board of Education settled a two-year-old lawsuit challenging the school district’s habit of holding high school graduations in a large Catholic church in nearby Bloomfield.

I basically wrote that, even as an agnostic, I didn’t think it was a big deal because no one was forced to worship. For that, I was labeled a “sanctimonious windbag.” And I’m sure there were harsher words uttered in bars and at kitchen tables across the state.

But Middletown Mayor Dan Drew’s organization of a National Prayer Day event scheduled for yesterday at city hall has stoked the flames once again. A letter to the editor of The Courant last week was measured in its tone, but Patrick McCann, co-chair on the Connecticut Coalition of Reason, insisted that since “the event focuses only [on] evangelical Christians, it is clearly discriminatory and unfair” to other religions and to non-believers.

But I’m not convinced. If Drew or anyone else at Middletown City Hall were to refuse a request from Muslims, Catholics, or Buddhists for a similar event, then it would be pretty easy to prove discrimination and actual harm — or for that matter, a violation of the so-called establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution.

Similarly, if a high school history teacher were to take out a Bible and proclaim that it was the word of God, it would be pretty easy for non-Christian parents to demonstrate that their children, held captive in a classroom by a proselytizing instructor, was harmed by the actions of a public employee.

But in this case, Drew is merely conducting a miniature version of an event that has been organized by a Christian-centered organization, hosted by members of Congress every year in Washington since 1953 and typically attended by no less than the president himself. The difference, however, is that the Washington event isn’t held in a government building. That was Drew’s mistake.

Maybe a sympathetic Middletown hotel owner would be willing to donate conference-room space. Or perhaps my graduate school alma mater and good neighbor Wesleyan University, founded by Methodists in 1831, would be willing to let Drew and his flock use the historic and recently renovated Memorial Chapel at North College.

Memorial seats more than 500 and is handicapped accessible and air-conditioned. The chapel has excellent acoustics and a pipe organ that must be the envy of every church in town. Wouldn’t the ambiance of a gorgeous place of worship built in the 19th century — or any church in the city, for that matter — be a far better fit for a prayer event than the sterile secular confines of the Middletown Municipal Building?

Common sense tells us to move the prayer event to a non-government venue. But evidently Drew is not interested in doing that, so that leaves us where we are today.

The problem is that despite their protest against using government property for religious purposes, the complaining nonbelievers cannot demonstrate that they’ve actually been harmed. Indeed, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals rejected a complaint against National Prayer Day four years ago for precisely that reason: the plaintiffs lacked standing. “I feel excluded and unwelcome” and “people are praying on government property” aren’t enough.

So protesters routinely show up at the Middletown event brandishing signs that say “Nothing fails like prayer.” Nasty comments pro and con go up on the Middletown Patch.

What will happen in my own hometown of Salisbury, where the Board of Selectmen holds public hearings and town meetings in the Congregational Church whenever crowds are too large for Town Hall?

I understand the passion of people who feel they’ve been wronged. But even as a fellow nonbeliever, I could think of at least 100 other pressing issues that command my attention and get my blood boiling: stagnant middle-class wages, poor job growth, the almost exponential rise in healthcare costs, the appalling lack of affordable housing in our state, race relations, and police brutality — just to name a few.

Meanwhile, it would also be nice if the believers would get off their soapboxes and stop preaching eternal damnation to those of us who won’t take anything on faith. But one thing at a time.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and is news editor of The Berkshire Record in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of CTNewsJunkie.com.

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(3) Archived Comments

posted by: Sarah Darer Littman | May 8, 2015  8:38am

I want to specify up front that I am making this comment as a person of faith, who attends services regularly. It would be easier for those not of faith, and even those of us with faith to be more sanguine about separation of church and state issues if we didn’t see members of the majority faiths trying to impose their views onto the rest of us in all aspects of government and legal issues - right up to the Supreme Court. As someone of a minority faith, when I hear “The United States is a ‘Christian Nation’” it really sticks in my craw, and I bid those people to reread George Washington’s letter to the Truro Synagogue in Rhode Island.

posted by: Terry Cowgill | May 8, 2015  1:12pm

Terry Cowgill

I agree, Sarah. That’s sort of what my last paragraph was about. The founders of this nation weren’t terribly religious. My understanding is they were deists, which is probably one step short of Unitarian. :-)

Perhaps once upon a time this nation was 99% Christian but it clearly is not anymore and there is nothing in the constitution that forces us to pretend it is.

posted by: Pat McCann | May 18, 2015  8:22pm

While I appreciate your position, “religious freedom” is not the issue with regards to our protesting the Middletown National Day of Prayer event.  The Connecticut Coalition of Reason respects the right of all people to hold whatever beliefs they chose, whether we agree with them or not.  The issue is one of separation of church and state, which should always be a hot button issue for every citizen whether or not they are religious.

As I am sure you are well aware, every single person within the borders of the US and its territories whether they are citizens or not, has the freedom to pray to and worship whatever God(s) they choose 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days per year in any location of their choosing.  We take no issue with that.  However, when a government official uses government offices (i.e., including costs for HVAC, electricity, water for restrooms, janitorial services to clean up, and police protection) during normal business hours to endorse one sincerely held belief over all others, we feel that this is a violation of the US and CT constitutions.  Hence we protest and write letters regarding the misuse of tax dollars as well as the mayor’s time for such an event.

When I contacted local Catholic, Presbyterian, Jewish, Muslim, Jain, Hindu, and Buddhist groups in 2013 to find out why only Evangelical Christians go to mayor Drew’s prayer event in the council chambers at town hall, the response was either “We never knew it was happening,” or “We were never invited.”  However, if you are looking to prove discrimination, look no further.  Our group has asked to speak each and every year the event was held, but were denied.  So we respectfully, politely, and quietly protested the event in town hall.  We have never disrupted the event or were rude to participants or the mayor.

Although this may seem like a trivial thing to some, the fact remains that Atheists are legally barred from holding office in seven states in our country.  Additionally, the recent event in Indiana, where discrimination was legalized against LGBT citizens under the guise of religious freedom, shows that the endorsement of religion by government can have real and deleterious impacts on any demographic of citizen.

But I do agree with you that there are many more pressing issues on which to focus.  Luckily there are many great organizations that are focusing on them.  However, as a group of Atheists, Humanists, and Freethinkers one of our top issues is separation of church and state and at the local level, with no budget, we do what we can.  We do not want Connecticut to march down the path that Indiana had taken.

On a final note, I would like to publicly thank mayor Drew for hearing and understanding our concerns.  He moved the event to a local park and held it after normal business hours this year.  They probably got a better turn out that way… and we did not protest.

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