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Post Magazine: Church and State

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Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 10, 2007; 12:00 PM

Hashmel Turner, a Baptist minister and Fredericksburg city councilman, always ended his prayers before the council in Jesus's name. But a complaint forced him to stop invoking Christ. Now he and his lawyer are arguing that Turner's freedom of religious speech is being violated, and as Michelle Boorstein explains in her story in this week's Washington Post Magazine, they're ready to take the issue all the way to the Supreme Court.

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A transcript follows.

Michelle Boorstein covers religion for The Post. She can be reached at boorsteinm@washpost.com.

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Michelle Boorstein: Greetings all and thanks for reading and writing. I'll answer as many questions as I can, but I'll also publish some that are simply comments -- or ones I can't get to, just so everyone gets air time... Let's get to it!

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Boston, Mass.: Would the Baptist minister defend the right of an aethiest head of a public council to end hearings with their views on the benefits of not believing in God (as a matter of free speech)? Or a Jew affirming that Jesus Christ is not the son of God?

Michelle Boorstein: He says he would, but I tried to raise some doubts of how this would actually play out ... He says he wouldn't mind if people of other faiths (or no faith) offer their own opening invocation. However, as he makes clear, he believes America needs Jesus Christ specifically. I think the test comes when you are in diverse communities where Christians are but one voice, or are the minority voice.

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Princeton, N.J.: Why was there so little discussion of non-believers in your article? Are we invisible?

Michelle Boorstein: I think it would be hard to make the argument today that non-believers' viewpoints are invisible in the mainstream media, in the Post, and in this article. We tried to make the case for protection of non-believers' rights clear through discussion of the work of the ACLU and Americans' United, and quoted people from Fredericksburg (resident Mr. Engel, councilwoman Kerry John) as well as Thomas Jefferson. We wanted to profile the woman whose complaint prompted this case, but she refused to be interviewed.

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Silver Spring, Md.: As a voter, I don't want my elected leaders governing in the name of 'any' mythical religious entity, be it Christ, Vishnu, the Sun god Ra or the pilot of the Hale-Bopp comet spaceship. I had thought that the First Amendment made this clear. What is the particular argument being used by this councilman for circumventing the Constitution?

Michelle Boorstein: Your comment is at the crux of the crossroads I think we're at today (and that isn't to say we haven't been at a "crossroads" before, and won't again). As I wrote in the story, the Framers left us with a bit of a conundrum, as they wrote the First Amendment right around the time when they budgeted for Congressional chaplains. One voice says: this shows they wanted to hold up Christian prayers -- the prayers they knew, as Christians -- as inspiration for our law-making chambers. Another voice says: this was meant to be merely symbolic and cultural, and was not meant to hold Christianity up above other faiths or even to infuse law-making with some particular understanding of God. Yet another voice says: the Framers didn't conceive of a time of such religious diversity and might be shocked to see our interpretation of their words. If you look at the many court rulings on legislative prayer, it gets complex. Judges have OKed everything from Fredericksburg's policy (no sectarian prayer) to communities that allow sectarian prayer, SO LONG AS there are many religious voices expressed. The question is: How do you manage that in a place where most people are Christian?

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Blacksburg, Va.: How do you justify prayers to Jesus in any public context (let alone one which should be for all people, not just Christians) when Jesus explicitly tells people not to do this:

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men....when thou prayest, enter into thy closet and when thou has shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret...." Matthew 6:5-6?

Michelle Boorstein: In the course of reporting this article and on the religion beat, I've heard your argument voiced before. I think folks who feel religion's role in public life is being wrongly squashed would say: secularism is running rampant and America is, in effect, in something of a crisis.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: I have recently moved to Fredericksburg so I found your article very interesting. I have always wondered why Christians who insist on praying in public don't heed the words of their teacher? In Matthew 6:5-7, Jesus commands, "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. When you pray, go into your room close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

It would seem according to Jesus own words that this is a frivolous law suit.

As a non-Christian, I must add that such public displays of personal faith make me feel not only unwelcome, but also left questioning whether the persons or institutions are capable of representing all the people they serve?

Michelle Boorstein: here's another person citing Matthew..

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What if the tables were turned: If a government official opens a meeting of official government business with a Christian prayer it sure seems to be a clear statement that non-Christians will not receive equal treatment under the law. How would this councilman feel if he was on trial and the judge led off the proceeding with an Islamic prayer? Don't these politicians understand the coercive power of government? The Founding Fathers sure did.

Michelle Boorstein: I asked him a similar question -- what if the majority of Fredericksburg City Council members were Muslim? If you feel America desperately needs God's prayers, would God hear those prayers? Rev. Turner had a complex -- and cautious -- answer, which is in the story. I think advocates of religious expression will be in an increasingly complex position in the coming years, as recent immigration patterns have created a much more diverse America. These questions will only come up more.

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Virginia: I thought the question you raised in the article, would

people be okay praying to Allah and Muhammad before

government proceedings, was excellent, and was my first

thought as I began reading. My guess is the outcry over

praying to Allah would be deafening, reminiscent of when

the newly elected Congressperson did not want to take his

oath on a bible, but on the Koran.

The hypocrisy of the Christian majority is ridiculous, as is

their view of themselves as victims in a secular conspiracy.

When the majority of the country is Christian, your

Christian president thinks he was appointed by god and

god tells him how to run the country, when religion is

creeping into our science classrooms, when laws banning

marriage between two people and are fueled by religious

doctrine, these are not symptoms of Christians being

victimized, these are symptoms of the majority forcing the

minority to cede to their beliefs and obey their laws. This

country is on a slippery slope, and we are quickly sliding

into the realm of theocracy. When our laws and spiritual

beliefs are not clearly separated, we become more like Iran

and Sudan every day.

People are free to practice whatever religion they want,

however they want, and no one is telling Christians they

can't be Christians, but the forum for Christianity is not a

law-making body or a public school. Will people like

Turner, who seemed like a lovely, likable man, not be

happy until we are all, Christians and non-christians alike,

praying to Jesus before we do anything? Vote? Go to

school? Buy a stamp? Where do we draw the line?

Michelle Boorstein: another view...

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Rockville, Md.: I found the article frustrating -- frustrating to read and frustratingly written. It appears that at no point did someone ask Turner, "Why does your need to pray trump someone else's need to not have government infiltrated by religion?"

The closest the article comes to asking this question is when you ask him what he would feel if the council were predominantly Muslim, and prayed to Allah. His response was to quote the Christian scripture of John. This didn't seem to be an answer, or an answer that had been given any sort of thought by Turner.

I also couldn't understand why the article didn't do a better job of presenting the secular side of the story. The piece had a "Profiles in Courage" feel to it, only Turner's bull-headed need to pray for everyone turned out to be the courage part. Which it isn't.

Michelle Boorstein: Sorry you felt frustrated by the piece. However, Rev. Turner isn't fighting against "someone else's need not to have government infiltrated by religion." He is fighting against the city policy that allows every other council member to pray to a non specific "God" or "Father." His question is: Why do they get to pray in their way, but I don't get to pray in my way.

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Santa Fe, N.M.: I am so tired of hearing about people's rights being infringed on just because they can't batter other people's ears with their sectarian invocations.

Didn't Jesus say something about when you're going to pray, do it in secret, not like the pharasaical whited sepulchres?

Michelle Boorstein: another reader raising the same scriptural question..

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Chattanooga, Tenn.: No question, just a compliment. That was an excellent article -- you portrayed all sides sympathetically and fairly. I particularly liked the way you pointed out that so many of the voices complaining about one side or the other get distracted by their own agendas.

I do have one complaint. Your article was so even-handed that I don't know which side to root for!

Michelle Boorstein: thanks for the nice words .. one thing I was hoping to raise is how divisive this subject is, how people look at a case about a city council prayer, for example, or whether a bible group can meet in a public school building, and they often see it in a much, much broader way. they get it wrapped up with things like whether public schools are worse than they used to be, or whether young people are exposed to too much violence in movies, or why marriages are falling apart. It can be hard to remember there is a legal question at the root of these cases: Is the government ESTABLISHING religion by its actions?

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Alexandria, Va.: Have you done any research on the influence Unitarians have had on this country's founding? Since they deny the trinity, they are not Christian, yet Unitarian John Adams helped write the Declaration of Independance, and based it of the work of Unitarain John Locke. It seems to me this country was founded on Unitarian values as much as anything else.

Michelle Boorstein: a comment about Unitarianism ..

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East Lansing, Mich.: Hello. I think the majority in our complacent society doesn't see this as a serious or real issue. I believe that there are a few minority groups that see the need to keep church and state separate and see a real threat if it is not. On the religious side, there are Jews and Muslims who are vulnerable. On the civil side, gays have been "hung to dry" using the religious view of the sacredness of marriage when it is a civil ceremony...yet, they don't deserve equal rights. Funny thing, the cavalier nature with which marriage oaths are kept tends to defy that argument. Your thoughts.

Michelle Boorstein: In one sense, our society is infused with the divisive parts of this debate. You have people who believe there is a war on Christmas, and you have people who think religion is running rampant in public places (government, public schools) in unconstitutional and harmful ways. So there's a decent-sized segment who are very focused on this subject. But I don't disagree with you that many people don't pay close attention to the court rulings, don't really know what the constitution says and will only catch up when something in their life seems affected. We ARE in a period of change, however. For a long time Christianity was prevalent in symbolic ways that honored it above other faiths, then came a period where groups like the ACLU and then Americans United became concerned about the rights of religious minorities (including atheists) and their voice and arguments became clear. No doubt the playing field looks different --including in ways people don't think about, such as the laws surrounding the institution of marriage, which obviously have religious roots. But I think there is increasing middle ground being created in the culture war. I was at a conference earlier this year where major separationist groups met with accomodationist groups over what they called a shared concern: the ignorance of American students about religion. You had groups like the ACLU sitting down with people like the ACLJ and Richard Land with the common purpose of improving -- and beefing up-- of the teaching of religion in public schools.

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Alexandria, Va.: How different is this Minsters issues from that of an Army Chaplin?

Michelle Boorstein: A central point about Rev. Turner is that he is a city council member. If he was simply a local resident who wanted to give the opening invocation in Jesus' name, the arguments would be different. The District Court, which ruled against Rev. Turner, agreed with the city's argument: Turner is a city official speaking during the official city council meeting -- he is a government official. A military chaplain is explicitly a religious figure. But there are people who feel public money shouldn't go to paying military chaplains of any faith.

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Fredericksburg, Va.: I notice that the pro-prayer people lament that we are becoming a depraved society because, supposedly, religion is being driven from public life. But your article points our that Fredericlsburg City Council had no prayers of any sort until the 1950's. This would indicate that it is the intrusion of religion into public life that is causing the depravity. Perhaps less religion would again put America back on the moral high ground.

Michelle Boorstein: another view..

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Seattle, Wash.: I, in theory, have sympathy for his position, but the problem that gets in my way is that 'religious neutrality' in the law often translates as 'Christianity, and any other religion that a large number of people are willing to raise a stink over." If the prayers were done from alternating faiths, such that it would as likely be from the Koran as the Bible, would the minister still want to take the case to the Supreme Court?

Michelle Boorstein: This is the argument John Whitehead would make - that opening invocations are constitutional so long as they are revolving, so long as it's clear that the city government is not endorsing or "establishing" or favoring any one faith. In the story I note that the 4th Circuit -- the same court Turner's case is before -- ruled against a Wiccan in Chesterfield County, Va, who wanted to be added to the prayer roster for local county meetings and was denied. The judge said the county was alright in excluding her BECAUSE it has a policy of letting people from various faiths give the invocation, ie that it wasn't showing a preference. The ACLU in this case said it was clear discrimination.

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Iowa: I read the article this morning and this paragraph stood out;

"Councilwoman Girvan, in a mint blazer, then launched into a general, if slightly odd invocation, something about work and "bearing the burden and heat of the day." Jesus Christ went unmentioned. While Girvan spoke, Turner kept his eyes shut, stretched his arms in front of him and silently mouthed his own prayer, continuing even after Girvan was done with hers."

Surely if he is looking for religious tolerance the least he could do is respect someone else's prayer! I am sure when he was leading the prayer he would expect everyone to be respectful.

Michelle Boorstein: interesting that you saw it as disrespectful .. I think he was simply praying along with her, but I didn't ask him explictly.

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Rockville, Md.: I think the people citing Matthew -- both in this chat and in general, as you shared that they have -- make an excellent point. How do believing Christians reconcile their public praying (and also, specifically, their prayers when Matthew goes on to say that God needs only the one prayer that starts "Our Father, who art in Heaven...") with the very specific proscription against it? You say it's because they see Christianity in crisis -- but, for those who believe, isn't that a matter for God to reconcile?

Michelle Boorstein: I clearly need to do more research on this point.....!

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Alexandria, Va.: I would give the author an "A" for a thorough even handed review of both sides of this important issue. Her article demonstrated a deep understanding of her subject. It was journalism at its best, informing without editorializing. As a military chaplain for 30 years and the author of a book of prayers I read her story with great appreciation.

Chaplain, Colonel, Edwin Arnie Porter, USAF, (Ret.)

Michelle Boorstein: some nice words from a military chaplain...

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Cambridge, Mass.: I am not a Christian. Why is this man trying to make me pray to Jesus before government proceedings? He is infringing on >my right not to practice Christianity. Why does he feel he has the right to force others to practice what he believes?

Michelle Boorstein: This reader represents those who feel Turner is infringing on their right to go hear testimony on sewer rates or whatever without hearing some religious invocation. Pre-meeting prayers have become nationally symbolic for some, something like the pledge of allegiance or "in God we trust" on money. There are many municipalities -- including the city of Washington -- where council meetings have no religious invocation, specifically so people don't feel excluded. But how do readers feel about the history of this subject -- the Framers and the Supreme Court supported pre-meeting invocations of some kind .. how do readers feel this should play out?

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Steelton, Pa.: Here in the Steelton area, there are Adventist and Wicca churches. I find it interesting that some advocate of public prayer (the issue here is mostly school prayer) state they would not extend the right of public prayer to the Wicca religion, and some refuse to recognize the Adventists. If you allow prayer, the real question often then becomes: who gets excluded?

Michelle Boorstein: As the head of the Virginia ACLU said in the article -- they don't police prayers. So the result is this patchwork, where people all over the country seem to be living under different rules. This is one reason some would like the Supreme Court to revisit this issue and clarify it, for the thousands of local bodies around the nation. It seems to me from federal court rulings that communities that allow Christian prayers but not other religious invocations (so far as I know no one bans completely unreligious -- ie, atheist -- pre-meeting welcomes) will not be able to survive long in that regard. The question is whether the legal issues about legislative prayer extend to other areas where religion and government get close, such as how much can a public student talk about his/her religion in a classroom before it becomes coercive, since other students have to listen (say, in a presentation, or a graduation speech)? At what times in the public school day can they distribute literature for Bible study? What sort of religious garb can a public school teacher wear, as they stand as a representative of the municipality? At the conference I mentioned earlier (about religious expression and teaching religion in public schools) I saw something surprising: Richard Land (of the Southern Baptist Convention) took the position that a public school teacher should NOT be allowed to wear a crucifix, while a representative of separationist group (I can't remember which) argued the opposite! Land said he felt students could be too young to understand the difference between the teacher as an individual and the teacher as a representative of the city or county. This debate goes far, far beyond legislative prayer.

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Takoma Park, Md.: It seems to me that the problem is less the specific wording of this man's prayer and more the fact that Fredericksburg City Council meetings start with a prayer at all! How is that not a clear violation of the separation of church and state in and of itself? Religion has ZERO place in official government business, whether it's associated with a specific denomination or not.

Michelle Boorstein: Legislative prayer is a bit of an oddball, since the Framers explicitly approved funding for it. But those who are worried about unconstitutional mixing of government and religion would say you have to look at the historical and cultural context. They were all Christian, so even if they disagreed about the TYPE of prayer, there were talking generally about the same God. It simply wasn't the same population we have today -- the diversity. That said, it's not as though there was this unanimous feeling about legislative prayer. There weren't invocations at the Constitutional Convention. At one point, when they were having trouble agreeing on (other) issues, Ben Franklin -- who was not a religious man -- said, maybe we should have a prayer, it might unite us. No one said much, and they let the suggestion die.

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Alexandria, Va.: I don't have a question, but I have a comment.

Most of us who read the article already had a position on the issues involved and I doubt if many of us have changed our position as a result of the article. Reading the story I was unable to tell on which side the author was standing which speaks to the excellence of her presentation. She simply gave the various viewpoints in an objective and respectful way and left it to us to make our own decisions. I thought it was journalism at its best.

Michelle Boorstein: time is running short so I'm going to send along a few last comments.. so you can hear one another out..

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Arden, N.C.: Why do city councils need someone to open their proceedings by praying to a specific deity? We are a pluralistic nation which supports freedom from the other person's choosen deity!

Michelle Boorstein: from N.C...

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Alexandria, Va.: How should it play out?

It's just want you learned in kindergarten...if you can't bring enough for everybody, you don't bring any at all.

This way everyone is equally upset, and no one is discriminated against.

Michelle Boorstein: a suggestion from Alexandria..

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Re: Religion's Role in Public Life: Government and "public life" are not the same thing. That is what Turner doesn't understand. "Public life" is the life outside of the city council chambers or the courtroom, where Turner can should freely express his views as a private citizen. But when he is in the city council chambers, he is on the taxpayers' time and not Jesus' time or Buddha's or Muhammed's.

Michelle Boorstein: I wrote this several times before, but in case it wasn't clear.....

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Seattle, Wash.: Seems like there's a lot of policing issues; why don't more people take Land's position that, if policing is the issue, we should err on the side of caution?

Michelle Boorstein: The policing is the key symptom of the culture war. Legal groups on both sides get many complaints that never turn into cases -- they simply write a letter to school district x or y or military installation x or y stating their position that someone's rights are being violated in some way. One side would say: always be cautious on allowing MORE religious expression, the other side would say: the best way to keep religion healthy is to keep it clearly separate from officialdom, from government in any capacity.

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Rockville, Md.: "But how do readers feel about the history of this subject -- the Framers and the Supreme Court supported pre-meeting invocations of some kind ... how do readers feel this should play out?"

I'm not sure that history is destiny in this case. We're not the same society that existed in the 1700s. Protection for African Americans had to be added 'to' the Constitution because values and understanding finally caught up with morality.

Since these prayers are problematic, and since believers have the opportunity to pray at almost any other time of day (like, say, for instance, in church), I think it makes sense to leave them out. The minister can certainly appeal to Jesus before he enters the meeting. He can talk about the meeting afterwards with Jesus. And, if the next day, he thinks of something else he should have said to Jesus about the meeting, he can do that. I just don't think it's at all appropriate for him to disrupt governmental proceedings with talk of Jesus.

Michelle Boorstein: one more comment, and then i'll be signing off:

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Michelle Boorstein: My time is up. I hope people will continue reading and thinking and talking about these subjects.

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