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Omdahl: Legislative prayer becoming a charade

By Staff | Mar 13, 2015

The furor over a Muslim prayer on Ash Wednesday in the North Dakota House of Representatives reflected an American tradition rooted in our history since Plymouth Rock in 1619. Protestant America has been fighting religious diversity for 400 years.

The Muslim prayer conflict is not peculiar to North Dakota. In Idaho, three legislators walked out on a Hindu prayer. New York has added two Muslim holidays to its school calendar. New religions are testing acceptance.

Many of the new settlers brought their Protestant religions with them from England. With state sponsored churches, folks who didn’t belong to the right church were denied civil privileges, such as holding public office.

With Protestants dominating society, Catholics coming to America were greeted with hostility. Not only were their churches and convents burned but they had to establish their own education system to escape the Protestant bias in public schools.

As the Catholic immigration escalated, staunch Protestants formed and supported the anti-Catholic “Know Nothing” political party. It became strong enough to elect city councils, state legislators, mayors and members of Congress.

Through the decades, Catholics and Protestants slowly learned to accommodate each other. They eventually accepted the Jews so that today they are all grouped with the Protestants as Judeo-Christians.

But the old nativist impulses still exist. It is part of the controversy over illegal immigrants, most of whom are Catholic, making it tough for some in Protestant circles to accept. Perhaps the impulse is even involved in the refusal of some to accept a president with Muslim ancestry.

With a constitution that guarantees equal rights for all, it was inevitable that Judeo-Christians would be faced with accommodating Muslims in the secular arena. The legislature is secular turf. Up until now, giving the official prayer has been reserved for the Judeo-Christians.

Muslim prayer in the Legislature is the latest test. The Protestant culture had just accepted Catholics. At least Catholics use the same Bible and share common Christian principles. Muslims have a much different faith.

After four centuries of fighting a losing battle to protect religious America from “outsiders,” maybe it is time to acknowledge that delivering prayers in state legislatures is a secular act and not a matter of faith.

The U. S. Constitution provides protection in the public arena for Muslims, Hindus and other faiths. While some may think that majority opinion should override minority interests, constitutional rights are guaranteed even when only one person is aggrieved.

With each new Supreme Court decision affirming the rights of minority religions, anguish has risen among the believers. Take the long drawn out argument over the Ten Commandments on public property.

Christians, especially Protestants, have fought the Court every step of the way even though countless court cases have ruled against mixing church and state.

Some have even claimed that God was kicked out of the classroom. It was the U. S. Constitution that kicked the Ten Commandments out of the classroom. (Believe it or not, God’s presence in the classroom was unimpaired.)

To accommodate the growing diversity of religions protected by the Constitution, the all-inclusive prayers in legislative chambers are becoming more vague and meaningless. They edify few and aggravate many.

Maybe it’s time to quit pretending that prayer can have any meaning when its contents must accommodate such a wide range of faiths. That brings us to the question of whether or not it is worth continuing this charade.

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