The Tracy City Council’s habit of offering time for public prayer at its meetings has attracted two out-of-town organizations — the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the National Legal Foundation — that would like nothing more than to fight the culture war’s next battle in Tank Town.
The group with the self-explanatory name wants the city to discontinue its tradition of hosting an invocation — included on council agendas, if you’re keeping track at home — after the call to order but before serious business commences.
The second group pledges to defend the city from a possible lawsuit from the first group, which is no surprise, considering its mission is to “cause America’s public policy and legal system to support and facilitate God’s purpose for her.” In other words, it wants to bring God into government.
Luckily, an authority on the matter exists. It’s called the U.S. Constitution.
As far as religion and worship are concerned, the Constitution is neutral as a beige three-piece suit. Religion is mentioned only twice in the lengthy document (the First Amendment and the little-known No Religious Test Clause), and both seek to limit the reach of government into the lives of the faithful.
Since this is the mother document for all government in the country, that carries significant weight.
However, the Tracy City Council has not fully embraced this neutrality.
Though there are no stipulations as to who may deliver the invocation or as to its content, it frequently takes the form of a prayer. And the conscious decision to have prayer as an official part of the meeting is difficult to explain away.
Seizing on this, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has suggested the city take the advice of its own attorney — offered in 2007 — and put the complete kibosh on invocations. Legal action, as they say, is on the table.
Though a Supreme Court ruling involving legislative invocations seems to be on the city’s side should a court battle begin, the majority decision in Marsh v. Chambers runs far afield of the actual Constitution.
Our potential litigants have plenty to fight about, should they choose to.
But this is our town and our issue, and we’re more than capable of solving it without carpetbagging legal guns.
Some in Tracy have suggested, as a compromise, continuing the traditional invocation but barring the mention of any specific religious figure.
Censorship has no place in the council chambers, and there’s no way to justify a government-mandated religious gag order on private citizens. Those speaking at City Council meetings (and our elected officials, for that matter) have the right to invoke the name and guidance of Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Krishna, or whatever religious figure they wish. First Amendment protections and all that.
But prayer time as a sanctioned part of the agenda has its own hang-ups.
First, it’s unnecessary. It has nothing to do with the business of the City Council, which is to govern the city of Tracy.
Second, given the Constitution’s religion-neutral stance, it’s just not smart to dip a civic toe in the waters of salvation. There be monsters (not to mention lawsuits and wasted resources) there.
When it comes to the Sign of the Cross, the city should be Switzerland. Because the best thing the government can do to protect personal religious freedom is to stay out of the faith business.
Government shouldn’t ask you to check your personal convictions at the council chamber door, but it shouldn’t prop up a particular brand of belief or disbelief, either.
In that American spirit of inclusiveness, the best course for the City Council is to make standard a sliver of its invocation protocol, one that supports the sensibilities of believers, heathens and the privately religious alike.
As it stands now, when no one signs up to deliver an invocation, the council offers a moment of silent reflection — during which one can pray, meditate or simply ponder the bulletproof dais.
It’s a perfect constitutional compromise.
Granting such policy permanent status would make Tracy a national example for embracing diversity alongside tradition, instead of letting the city become just another battleground for the culture warriors.
Do we have the courage to change what we can?
Let us pray …
• Share your thoughts with columnist Jon Mendelson at email@example.com.