The Huffington Post currently has an article describing some controversy over the exclusion of religious clergy/material from the 9/11 memorial service. Bloomberg has pledged to maintain his position despite conservative religious group protests. A spokesperson for the Mayor said, “The ceremony was designed in coordination with 9/11 families with a mixture of readings that are spiritual, historical and personal in nature. It has been widely supported for the past 10 years and rather than have disagreements over which religious leaders participate we would like to keep the focus of our commemoration ceremony on the family members of those who died. This year’s six moments of silence allow every individual a time for personal and religious introspection,” according to the article.
I think that response is actually quite good, but I’d like to delve a bit deeper into the substance. There are a lot of ways we could discuss this controversy, but I will frame it by asking three questions:
- Is it constitutional?
- Why would we want to include prayer?
- Is the whole exercise misguided?
Is it constitutional?
I feel arguments over the Christian/Secular origins of our country or the meaning of the First Amendment are often wrongheaded. The original intent is of less importance to me than whether an application fits our time and situation. So, court cases and opinions of early Americans are of less value in deciding the constitutionality of something than modern opinions and applications of law. So, when presented the former, you could argue with the David Barton’s of the world over what the founders really believed or you could simply point out the irrelevance. That this should be our method of approaching constitutionality should not really be up for debate. We already have advanced past several ideas held by our founders that are either barbaric or unnecessary; they just choose to harp on this particular issue because it affects their god-belief.
That being said, what is the proper modern perspective for the interaction with religion in official government-sponsored ceremonies? There are several court decisions over the past 60 years on the side of secularism in this case—I’ll just name a few.
- Engel v. Vitale, 82 S. Ct. 1261 (1962)
- Public school prayer, regardless of denomination, is unconstitutional
- Lemon v. Kurtzman, 91 S. Ct. 2105 (1971)
- The famous Lemon Test stems from this case (every secularist should know this case). Government actions should have a secular purpose, should not inhibit/advance religion, and should not involve excessive entanglement between the two.
- Wallace v. Jaffree, 105 S. Ct. 2479 (1985)
- Public school moment of silence deemed unconstitutional since it was revealed the motivation for the “moment” was to encourage prayer.
- Lee v. Weisman, 112 S. Ct. 2649 (1992)
- Clergy cannot perform prayers/religious ceremonies at public school graduation.
You’ll notice that these tend to focus on schools. That’s because the courts are more wary when a case may involve coercion of children. This ceremony will not be primarily for children who are obligated to be there, but they will certainly be involved (and it’s not like they can leave if their parents bring them).
I can see the constitutionality case going one of two ways—either it is blatantly unconstitutional by having representatives from one or two denominations (no, having a Christian pretend to stand in for “everybody” doesn’t count) or they invite a whole host of religious groups. The former is almost certainly unconstitutional and the latter is almost certainly ridiculous. Maintaining a secular ceremony is a responsible, moderate approach with respect to this question.
Why would we want to include prayer?
I’m not actually sure I understand why religious groups want to pray there at all. The article offers this gem of a quote from Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, for some insight: “I’m stunned. This event affected the whole psyche and soul of the country, and you are going to have no prayer? What’s a memorial service if you are going to leave God out of it completely? It seems kind of hollow.” There you have it—a bit of intellectually vacuous reasoning that barely makes a discernible point. Let’s see what we can draw out of his statement, though.
The first claim seems to be that you cannot have a memorial service without involving God. I have a couple of issues here. I’m not clear on how you involve God. Is it by having ministers there? Is it by praying? Won’t ministers be there anyway in the crowd and won’t people in the crowd be praying? He must think they need to be officially designated on the stage if God is going to accept an invitation. Furthermore, isn’t god always present? My other problem with the claim is it’s not clear why you can’t remember someone or something if you’re not doing so in an explicitly religious way. This is clearly false, and I’m not even going to bother addressing it with a fuller rebuttal.
The second claim is that it will be hollow without God. We can first apply the same questions I already asked about God’s presence. We can also verify whether the claim is even correct—at last, a falsifiable claim! Watch the ceremony, and see if you are moved. Ask people who attended if they found it hollow in any way. I bet that will not be the common opinion. Mentioning God is certainly not a prerequisite for a substantive, meaningful, or moving ceremony.
Is the whole exercise misguided?
There are a wide variety of intellectual issues that I have with the very idea of creating a religious memorial service.
It seems like, according to religious dogmas (excluding Mormonism), the eternal fates of the victims would already be set. God would know their ultimate destination and, depending on which dogma, they may even already be there. So, the exercise does nothing to help the victims, who should be the focal point of a memorial service.
I also find it a bit insulting to the victims that they are so concerned to pray about these attacks now, but did not do so in advance. Why not entreat your particular god in advance to keep everyone safe instead of after s/he fails to do so? The point could also be made that a fundamentalist understanding of religion caused this tragedy. These are both important points, but I fear I would go too far off track if I explored them more here.
I think a pretty strong case can be made against this controversy. A prayer-filled ceremony of the kind envisioned by the American Family Association, the Family Research Council, and others is unconstitutional, based on false ideas, and isn’t even intellectually consistent with their beliefs.
What else should we expect, though, from any idea supported by Pat Robertson?