Toward a Prayer-Free Minnesota Legislature

Published by Minnesota Atheists on

Head shot of Jo, smiling.

By Jo Marsicano

I recently sent an email to my state representative, Paul Thissen, who’s also the Speaker of the House, declaring my atheism and my right as a citizen and taxpayer to be represented equally, strongly urging separation of church and state and a strong secular government.

Among other things, my letter stated, “I don’t think any lawmaking body should start its sessions with religious rituals of any kind, such as a chaplain leading the body in prayer. As Speaker of the House, I would urge you to remove this practice from the chamber altogether.”

Representative Thissen responded, in part, “You specifically requested that as Speaker of the House I eliminate the practice of opening House sessions with prayer. That is not my decision to make. The prayer is called for in House Rule 1.01. As with all rules of the House, Rule 1.01 was adopted by a majority vote of the full House of Representatives.”

His letter included the rule language, and the relevant portion states, “The call to order is followed by a prayer by the Chaplain or time for a brief meditation.” Representative Thissen stated, “Frankly, there are simply not the votes in the House to do away with that tradition. “

If atheists ever decided to pursue removing this section from House rule 1.01, we’d have to convince a majority of house members to do away with it. A large task, I’m sure, but in my view, worth it. The inclusion of “brief meditation” does not improve the house rule. It simply adds another option of private mental activity which our laws should not be based on. Rather they should rely on evidence-based, rational decision making.

According to news reports last year, a proposal in the Minnesota Senate would have cleared the way for prayer leaders who open Senate sessions to be more specific in naming their deities, a thinly veiled attempt to give Christian chaplains the right to invoke the name of Jesus or other Christian-specific language. A contentious debate followed, and fortunately the senate voted the idea down, although the larger problem remains—a lawmaking body opening its sessions with any kind of prayer.

Representative Thissen noted in his response that Town of Greece v. Galloway, now pending before the US Supreme Court, may determine, in Representative Thissen’s words, “whether a city council violated the constitution by opening its meetings with mostly Christian prayers.” Representative Thissen included an article from the New York Times regarding the case. But after reading the article, I realized that the case is only about whether the prayers used to open council meetings can use overtly Christian language, not whether prayer itself can be used. While I hope for a court ruling that restricts the overtly Christian language, I also hope for an eventual court case that could strike down prayers at public meetings, period.

Representative Thissen said in his letter, “You can count on my continued support for policies that fully recognize the separation of church and state as implied in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” I was struck by use of the word implied. The first amendment states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .” Debate about the validity of the term “separation of church and state” comes from theocrats who want to dismantle Thomas Jefferson’s descriptive phrase in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State” to describe the purpose of the amendment.

Local, state, and federal lawmaking bodies, from school boards to legislatures to congress, commonly open their sessions with religious, usually Christian, prayer rituals. These rituals are fueled by those motivated on one end by simple arrogance and on the other by a thirst for theocracy. They want so much more out of government than is due them. As a result, our representatives give undue deference to superstitious ritual and waste their time and our taxes in contentious debate like that in the Minnesota Senate last year.

Prayer rituals at public meetings are harmful. They act out a public belief system that marginalizes nonreligious people even though we have an equal stake in public life. We vote, pay taxes, and are subject to all state laws. We have the right to a prayer-free Minnesota legislature.

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