Virtual Voices

Regulating prayer

Religion

Traditionally prayer comes before a meal.

But a rural Indiana food pantry will hold off on the prayer until after people take their food to accommodate an overreaching government's rules.

Pantry founder Paul Brock thought his approach to prayer was polite and inoffensive. After food recipients filled out a questionnaire, volunteers asked for possible prayer requests.

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"We still give food to people, even when they say they don't want to pray," Brock explained.

But federal and state officials saw violation of a government regulation that declares: "No religious service or teaching can be required in conjunction with receiving service." As a result, the pantry was cut off from federally subsidized supplies of food.

Brock pleaded that his volunteers weren't coercing anyone, and there's now been a compromise that would permit the request for prayer after the needy have been given food.

This controversy goes beyond federal regulations. A series of confusing U.S. Supreme Court rulings have swung between First Amendment religious freedom and an effort to drive religious expression out of the public square.

Volunteers at the food pantry can't offer prayer at the "wrong time," but the University of Notre Dame offers prayer on campus, despite all the federal aid it receives. Students in some instances can't quote the Bible at high school graduations, but the Founding Fathers quoted the Bible often while they drew up the Constitution.

What's needed is a fresh look by the Supreme Court at the First Amendment's Establishment Clause, which has been abused to create a mistaken doctrine of freedom from religion.

The clause-"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"-originally meant that Congress could not establish a national church denomination.

The Founding Fathers prayed together and turned to Scriptures in their deliberations. They clearly never intended to make government programs a tool to stop prayer. The drive to push all religious expression out of the public sphere is a hopeless task anyway. Scriptures already are inscribed in plenty of government places-the Washington Monument, the U.S. Capitol building, and the Liberty Bell.

In Jackson County, Paul Brock wants to get back to feeding people in need. He hopes government officials will stop worrying about whether someone might possibly be offended if he suggests a prayer.

Meanwhile, one easy place to cut the enormous federal budget deficit is in enforcement of overreaching rules.

Russ Pulliam
Russ Pulliam

Russ is a columnist for The Indianapolis Star, the director of the Pulliam Fellowship, and a member of God's World Publications' board of directors.

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