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Pyle: Let them pray and hope they don't
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

[Above: High church for Time Lords.]

One day, about 20 years ago, I got a call out of the blue from a former boss. He just wanted to make sure I was OK.

He had heard that my first marriage was ending and hoped I wasn't too down about it. (I wasn't.)

"Well, I'm praying for you," he said. "Even though I know that doesn't mean anything to you."

"No," I said. "But I know it means something to you. So I take it in the spirit it is intended, and I thank you for it."

I suppose I could have gone all New Atheisty on him and told him to stop trying to impose his fairy tale skypilot superstitious claptrap on my personal business, thank you very much. But it honestly didn't occur to me that this conversation between a believer and a non had stepped over any boundaries — personal, legal or constitutional.

Clearly, he was going out of his way to be supportive, using the methods and language that meant the most to him. And I, if I say so myself, was mature enough to take it in without taking offense.

Were that it were always that simple.

In its upcoming fall term, the U. S. Supreme Court is expected to take up the case of Greece vs. Galloway. This case involves, not the then-pagan nation that is the Birthplace of Democracy, but a white-flight suburb of Rochester, N.Y. (Been there.)

The kerfuffle is that the town board is in the habit of beginning its meetings with a prayer, usually an overtly Christian one. And a few folks have taken offense and sued to have it stopped on the grounds that it violates the constitutional separation of church and state.

It is a big enough deal that Utah's U.S. senators, Orrin Hatch and Mike Lee, as well as Utah Attorney General John Swallow, have weighed in.

Even religious conservatives daren't claim that public meetings should begin with prayer because prayer makes legislative bodies pass better laws. So they aren't.

The senators are arguing that opening a government meeting with a prayer is another of those American habits that has been made morally correct by mere dint of it having been around for a couple of centuries. That argument is, of course, bogus. The whole progress of humanity has been finding ways to throw off its bad habits.

Swallow, joining the attorneys general of 23 other states, is trying to convince the court that opening a government meeting with a prayer isn't an act of government, which would clearly be prohibited by the First Amendment, but a personal act by whomever is talking at the moment, which would clearly be protected by same.

That argument works a little better. People praying at government is certainly different than government praying at its people.

This can easily go off the rails, though. The slightest hint that any government agency will look with favor upon the petitions and rights of the religious, or the members of any specific sect, and not those of others is not only unconstitutional as all hell, it is stupid, mean and destructive of democracy.

Given firm reassurance that such favoritism isn't being shown, those who don't share the religious feelings of those praying before the Greece Town Board could view it as no more threatening than the bunch of folks who will dress up like Jedi Knights and wait in line all night for the next Star Wars sequel.

Or folks who believe that prayer should be taken seriously, and not just condescendingly tolerated, could pray at home before the meeting. Or silently to themselves. And nobody would need to be reassured about anything.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, has never dressed up like a Jedi Knight. Time Lords, though, are another matter. gpyle@sltrib.com

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