There's been some talk over the past few weeks about the recent Supreme Court decision that prayer at city council meetings is not constitutional. The decision was largely based on the idea that prayer in a public place is exclusionary - that those who do not share in the beliefs being prayed about are being excluded.
So far our city council has not made any change, although there was some talk about getting a legal opinion (although we're a city council, which was the specific object of the decision, which makes it pretty clear to me). Regina stopped having their opening prayer immediately; other councils have not made any changes that I'm aware of.
As far as I can tell, most members of council feel that we should continue with prayer, because that's what we've traditionally done. Others have said that they see no harm in it, and one councillor bemoaned the increasing atheism of society, confusing atheism (a lack of belief in God) with secularism (excluding religious activities from public events). And some have said that they appreciate the opportunity to gather their thoughts before a meeting.
Personally, I think that we don't need to have a prayer before a meeting. It's not that I'm against religion - I attend church regularly, have been on my church council, and currently am a member of the board of trustees of my church. But I know that everyone does not share in my beliefs, and I don't think that a governing body that is supposed to represent everyone in a community should assume that everyone is comfortable with public prayer. We may think that the prayer is broadly ecumenical and doesn't exclude anybody, but that's an easy assumption to make when you're in the Christian majority.
Tradition is a fine thing, but it's a poor excuse for continuing a behaviour that some may find offensive or exclusionary. We used to call members of council aldermen, ignoring the fact that such a term excluded fifty per cent of society. It's not too difficult to find examples of things that used to be tradition, but have been changed or abandoned over the years - remember when stores were closed on Sundays?
As for the opportunity to gather thoughts, nobody is stopping individual councillors from doing that on their own, silently. I can't think of any other workplace where people pray communally before starting their work - are we suggesting that making decisions at council requires more spiritual guidance than any other job that requires making decisions?
One of my favourite constituents, who passed away recently, phoned me once after a meeting of the previous council, asking if I could get her a copy of the prayer. When I asked her why, she said that it didn't appear as though many members of council were actually listening to the prayer, judging by their behaviour during the meeting. That made me laugh, but it also showed the pointlessness of this public display of piety - why bother with it if you're going to forget what was said as soon as the prayer is over?
To me, prayer is an extremely personal thing that doesn't need to be public. For council to continue to do so, even after the Supreme Court has declared the practice to be unconstitutional, is ignoring the realities of our current society, and excluding people whose beliefs may differ from our own, but who still deserve to feel completely welcome at a city council meeting.
"Never pray for justice, because you might get some." - Margaret Atwood