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Ventura County Perspective | PERSPECTIVE ON PUBLIC
PRAYER

Reconsider an Act That Divides Us

August 13, 2000|STUART BECHMAN-BESAMO | Stuart Bechman-Besamo lives in Simi Valley

Editor's note: The following is an edited transcript of remarks made last week by the author before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors.

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I was raised as a Christian. Maybe because of my propensity to sing gospel songs and tell Bible stories as a young adult, I began to be singled out to do prayers at public events.

Like most of those who open our sessions here with prayers, I ended all mine with "in Jesus' name." You have to realize that, where I was raised, I was not around Jews, Unitarian Universalists, Buddhists, Muslims, Wiccans or others who pray differently.

I am not sure which of my friends it was, but some person to whom I am eternally grateful took me aside and suggested that it might not be necessary for me to end prayers with "in Jesus' name." The reason given was that more than likely, in every public place where I prayed, some were offended or made uneasy by the singular exclusiveness of tone or message. Because these were mostly partisan political meetings, the last thing I wanted to do was to offend someone.

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Then as now, when such prayers are uttered the house often becomes divided. You can see it. There are those with bowed heads and closed eyes. There are those who stand uneasily erect with eyes wide open, staring out into space. Occasionally someone remains seated or leaves his hat on. You who have your eyes closed never see that. At the end of the prayer you can hear the divided house. There are those who join in hearty "amens," while there are those who remain silent. It is sort of like a vote on something.

Praying without invoking Jesus' name I found to be easy enough. I couldn't tell any difference in the results. Some still complained about my prayers. An agnostic friend asked me if I had ever read the Bible, specifically, Matthew 6:5-8.

This was very interesting in that I learned that Jesus condemned public praying (even in houses of worship), in no uncertain terms, telling his followers that if they must pray, to go home and enter their own closet, close the door and pray secretly there. He said that prayers were rather unnecessary since God already knew your needs before you prayed. He taught that publicly uttered prayers were repetitious nonsense and hypocritical publicity-seeking.

As regards my own public praying, I came to agree with that Biblical point of view. And I subsequently added an observation of my own: Sectarian public praying at official events can eventually tear communities apart. Fundamentalist prayers of every ilk are tearing communities apart not only in this country but all over the world.

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We need to think about what will happen when the Branch Davidians, the Scientologists, the Wiccans, the [predominantly gay] Metropolitan Community Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses or Native Americans seek their turn? And what about the nonreligious people who find any supplication to an invisible being to be offensive and wonder why their elected officials need such superstition to do their job?

What people outside the loop of mainstream religion experience at prayer-led public meetings is little different from what the Catholic and Mormon public school students in Santa Fe, Texas, suffered from Southern Baptist public school prayers there.

Given our great religious vicissitude, sectarian oral praying in official public gatherings is, by its nature, a form of religious intrusion on some. Persistence in this "on the agenda" activity is a travesty of the 1st Amendment, and it projects a public milieu of "them versus us"--that ought not be and need not be.

I have written letters and made phone calls over the past year to members of the Ventura County Board of Supervisors about this issue without getting any response or discussion. I fervently hope that the supervisors will take advantage of their scheduled break to reflect on this issue and consider discontinuing the practice when they return.

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