Memo To City Council: Park Your Religion At The Door


Westminster Blurs Church, State Separation

September 15, 1991|By Darren M.Allen

No matter how subtle or unintentional, religious discrimination -- here in the land of the free, home of the brave -- still thrives.

While it may not always take a very obvious tone -- say, like Ku Klux Klan rallies, skinhead marches or neo-Nazi hate fests -- it still is offensive and insensitive.

And you don't really have to look too far to find it.

Last Monday, at the start of a City Council meeting in Westminster, Mayor W. Benjamin Brown Jr. led the council and about 40 members of the publicin the pledge of allegiance.

In the echo of the words, "with liberty and justice for all," Brown then led the room in a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.

"It's been a constant part of the meetings as long as I can remember," Brown said. "No one has ever made an issue ofit."

Guess what?

I'm going to make an issue of it.

It's notthat I'm against prayer. After all, thanking, praising, revering andquestioning a supreme being is an essential part of being human.

But what I am against is religious intolerance -- discrimination -- no matter how small or subtle a form it takes, no matter how "well-meaning."

To be sure, the words themselves are inherently neutral.

Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thineis the kingdom, and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.

The words, in their New Testament context, are inherently Christian.

And inherently insensitive of a public body that determines how public policy -- affecting Muslims,Buddhists, Catholics, Christian Scientists, Taoists, Jews, atheists -- is to be decided.

Especially, as wasthe case last Monday, when the words were being recited on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, the beginning of the 10 holiest days in Judaism.

"If you're Jewish, that's really slapping you in the face, especially on the start of the High Holy Days," said Stuart Comstock-Gay, director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland in Baltimore. "That's really offensive."

The ACLU, remember, views any mingling of religion with the state in schools, courts or legislaturesto be unconstitutional. And while the U.S. Supreme Court doesn't necessarily agree with that view, it certainly makes sense to me to keepany one religion from being portrayed as an official or sanctioned belief.

"I say a private prayer," said John A. Riley, the Manchester town councilman who also is the manager of Hampstead.

Of all of the municipal councils in Carroll, Westminster is the only one that routinely begins its meeting with a sectarian prayer.

A moment of silence follows the pledge of allegiance in Sykesville, while a non-sectarian call for heavenly guidance begins meetings in Hampstead. In Manchester, Union Bridge, Taneytown, Mount Airy and New Windsor, no prayers are said.

"I don't understand why public bodies seem to think they have to pray," Comstock-Gay said.

I don't either. After all, the Church of England, the officially sanctioned, state-sponsored religion of Britain, was one of the forces behind bringing folks to this side of the Atlantic.

And in America -- especially this "Free State" part of America -- having to be religiously alienated during a meeting of elected officials is insulting and unfair.

"The state is the state, and religion is religion," Comstock-Gay said. "Not only is it dangerous for the state to be in the business of religion, it belittles religion."

Westminster Mayor Brown says that no one has raised the issue with him, but he did say if members of the public complained, the prayer issue can be dealt with in a public forum.

"When the prayer started, I believe that it reflected the broad spectrumof the community," he said. "If your question is, 'Does it reflect it now?', then I'm not so sure."

I am.

It doesn't.

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