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A Connecticut legislature without a prayer

By Dick Ahles

Publication: The Day

Published June 02. 2013 4:00AM

The General Assembly adjourns with the presiding officer asking that "God save the state of Connecticut," a prayer that comes far too late in some sessions when you consider what's already been done by lawmakers.

But that little prayer may find its sessions are numbered in the Connecticut General Assembly and elsewhere now that the United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a lawsuit challenging prayers at government meetings.

If the court agrees that such prayers violate the First Amendment, public bodies from boards of selectmen to the Congress of the United States will have to stop praying before the day's session begins. Imagine the rage, not to mention the demagoguery, if that happens.

Reporting on the pending Supreme Court case, the Danbury News-Times provided some inkling of what may come if prayers have to be eliminated from meeting agendas.

A councilman, retired fire chief Phil Curran, contended that prayer at council meetings is "what our country was founded on" and revived the right's fighting slogan on school prayer, the equivalent of "guns don't kill people, people kill people" during the recent unpleasantness over gun control:

"The U.S. Constitution guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

For those who might be under the impression that the Constitution has only one amendment, the Second, there's also a First, which states, in part, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

If you think "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," is open to interpretation, wait until you hear the many and varied views on what "prohibiting the free exercise of thereof" really means.

This latest distraction from the nation's real problems started in Greece, not the cradle of democracy, but a town near Rochester, N.Y. where two women, one Jewish and the other, an atheist, objected to mostly Christian prayers being said before town meetings, usually by Grecian clergymen, who are, coincidentally, all Christians. Their cause was taken up by one of the religious right's favorite foes, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Founded in the 1940s as "Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State," the group often clashed with the Catholic Church over issues of separation until it made friends with John Kennedy in 1960 and changed its name. It has since been a major supporter of the Supreme Court decisions that banned prayer in the public schools, and at such sacred venues as high school football games on Friday nights under the lights in Texas.

In Bridgeport, where corruption is more of a tradition than prayer, John Olson, the councilman and retired minister, argued sectarian prayers regularly said before meetings only serve to exclude members of other churches. "We have to face facts," he said. "It's a different time and it really doesn't fit anymore."

The court took the case and it will probably be decided by a 5-4 decision with Justice Kennedy once again playing swing man. If it decides prayers before council deliberations are constitutional, there will be new efforts to change the court's mind on school prayer. If it agrees with the Grecian pair, does that mean the U.S. Senate and House are violating the Constitution with their daily prayers by their chaplains? And what about the infidel Obama ending his speeches with "God bless the United States of America?"

The court will get the controversy rolling with arguments during the current year and provide another fine public service by announcing a decision next June - just in time for the congressional campaigns.

Dick Ahles is a retired journalist from Simsbury.

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