My Experiences with Public Prayer

May 17th, 2014

In light of reading Town of Greece v. Galloway, I offer these personal thoughts on public prayer. I recognize that my experiences may not be average, and should not in any way be viewed as casting judgment of those with different experiences. I don’t offer these anecdotes to prove any constitutional point.

Growing up in a liberal, Jewish family in New York City, I was inculcated by many influences (family, school, secular New York) to have a very strong aversion towards any overt-Christianity in public spheres. I was okay with decorations of Santa Claus, or Rudolph, but I became uncomfortable with Nativity Scene displays (once I found out that there was actually a baby Jesus in there). I was somewhat okay with saying “one nation under God,” in the pledge of allegiance. But I took offense when the Christian Club at my high school handed out candy canes with lines of scripture attached to them. I objected when we had to read the Book of Job in English, because the teacher handed out copies of the King James Bible.

I had virtually no occasion to ever see or hear any type of Christian prayer. I may have gone to a Baptism when I was young, and attended a Catholic mass at a funeral. But that’s about it. In fact, I don’t think I heard a single prayer in any public forum, outside a house of worship, until I was in college! I vaguely recall a few moments of silence during various tragedies. But that’s about it.

I don’t think I ever attempted to understand why it bothered me. It was just the thing you do in New York groupthink. The concept of any public prayer, in any public context, would have seemed ludicrous to me.  To give you an example, I recently took my parents to the Houston Rodeo (you should go if you can!), which began with a prayer by one of the cowboys. My mom asked me, with total seriousness, “can they say a prayer in public?” I would’ve posed the same question before I went to law school. The only thing I remember learning about the First Amendment in New York City public schools was the separation of Church and State.

At Penn State, I attended a meeting of the College Republicans, which began with a prayer. I can’t recall what was said—I’m pretty sure the word “Jesus” was said, but I remember being physically uncomfortable. I stood up, and and waited for it to finish. But, at some point after that, I thought about the experience. I realized, well, that wasn’t so bad. My faith in Judaism was just as strong. I showed respect for another faith. And it took all of 15 seconds.

During my time in college, I began to challenge a lot of the assumptions I had been taught growing up, politically, socially, and morally. I had the opposite experience of many, going from a very liberal home to a somewhat moderate place which exposed me to America west of the Hudson river. I realized that in my New York City secular bubble, I had been totally insulated from any religiosity in the public square. And as a result, I was extremely uncomfortable around it.

Over the next decade, I started to attend more functions that began with a prayer. (As an aside, prior to the beginning of the Federalist Society annual gala, a member of clergy is called up to read a prayer. Prior to the beginning of the American Constitution Society dinner I attended a few years ago, the Master of Ceremonies thanks the union that provides service for the event.) With each event, the discomfort became less. I started to listen to the words, not as articles of doctrines that I agreed with, but as well wishes from another people, from their creator. Even, according to their own faith, my own actions and beliefs would deprive me of those blessings. I appreciate the gestures for their goodwill.

I’ve also come to realize the benefit of prayer before a meeting. It places the attendees in a certain frame of mind, with focus and clarity, to achieve certain objectives. It lends significance to the occasion, to separate it from other run-of-the-mill aspects of the day. It beseeches a higher power to put aside individual shortcomings and work towards a common goal. These were not idle words aimed at proselytizing or casting me to damnation, but genuine efforts to place divine providence on a meeting to accomplish great things. Over the last decade or so, I have had a changed worldview on the topic of public prayer. Now, I have no problem when any event begins with a prayer. I stand out of respect, and sit down when it’s over. My own faith remains sound, and I do not feel coerced.