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Why We Pray Before Public Meetings (and Let Pagans Do, Too)
Kenneth Lambert / Getty

'Great Goddess Athena, great god Apollo, we ask that you impart wisdom in these proceedings today," Jennifer Zarpentine, a Wiccan priestess, prayed at the town board meeting of Greece, New York, in April 2008.

"Help the board to make the right, informed decisions that will benefit the greater good of this community. This we ask of you." As board members contin­ued to bow their heads in prayer, several other meeting attendees responded with the pagan version of amen, "So mote it be."

Around that time, two Greece residents sued the town over such prayers. It wasn't the pagan one that set them off, though. It was the other ones—almost all given by Christian pastors. Today, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that such invocational prayers do not violate the Constitution. Writing for the conservative majority, Justice Anthony M. Kennendy said, "Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government."

Zarpentine's prayer illuminates the issues: Did the town of Greece officially beseech Athena and Apollo for wisdom? Was the local government endorsing paganism? Did the use of we imply the approval and participation of everyone in attendance? Should Christians be troubled by prayers to false gods? Should they protest? If they did so, would they have trouble presenting their other business to the board?

Now apply those questions to explicit Christian prayers.

Like the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, we wish Greece had been a bit better at indicating it wasn't, as a government, coercing anyone to worship ...

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Why We Pray Before Public Meetings (and Let Pagans Do, Too)
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