When Public Prayer Is Made Illegal

On Thursday May 7, 1992, I joined about 500 other citizens and taxpayers to pray on the lawn at City Hall in the city of Gresham, Oregon. It was the national day of prayer, declared so by our president. Organizers had gone through the right hoops, and the mayor of Gresham had granted permission for us to be there. But the gathering began not with a prayer or song of worship, but a statement read by a police lieutenant culminating in, “You are commanded to leave.” What a way to start a prayer meeting!

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) had found out about this prayer gathering, and went to Multnomah County Circuit Court, getting a restraining order from Judge Robert Jones. (Judge Jones had previously ruled that there could be no prayers at high school graduations—what an interesting coincidence that he was the judge assigned to this case). The attorney representing the ACLU was Charles Hinkle. He is the gay activist attorney who represented Fred Meyer to keep the “No Special Rights for Homosexuals” petition from being circulated outside its stores.

A half hour before the event, the Gresham City Council held a special session to rescind its approval of the gathering. The two Gresham pastors leading the prayer meeting, Larry Gadbaugh and Gil Harder, interpreted the prohibition to mean that we couldn’t have the large group prayer meeting that was planned, but if people wanted to stay and pray in unsupervised small groups they could. So we did. But after ten minutes of preliminaries, and twenty minutes of prayer, at 12:30 the authorities told the leaders we had to disperse, and we sung a closing hymn. Since the prayer meeting was scheduled for an hour, half the prayer time was eliminated. And since it had been designed to allow business people and others to come anytime during their lunch hour, some people arrived after 12:30 when the prayer meeting was disbanded.

It was a positive prayer time, with excellent leadership. But how tragic that it was cut in half, that some had to miss it altogether, and that it began with an order to leave the property. At a time when society is outraged by the unprincipled behavior of its civic leaders, here we were to pray for this country and its leaders.

ACLU attorney Charles Hinkle is pursuing action against the city of Gresham for not forcing us to leave earlier. Two other Oregon cities that allowed similar events are being investigated by the ACLU as well. It will be interesting to see whether the city of Gresham—and other cities—grants us permission next year. It seems likely that in the future we will need to count the cost and decide whether we will be willing to risk arrest to pray, or whether this is one more part of our country’s Christian heritage we will be willing to quietly surrender.

The ACLU’s efforts have been referred to in previous issues of this newsletter. It is active in making sure children can read anything they want on school property except a Bible, and gather for any reason except for prayer. The ACLU has created a climate in which judges can take the name of God in vain in our courtrooms, but cannot under any circumstances pray aloud. (North Carolina Judge William Constangy used to open his court with a brief prayer for divine wisdom, but the ACLU successfully challenged it. Ironically, both the Congress and the Supreme Court—dating back to the Christian roots of our nation—have always begun in prayer. If the ACLU has its way, they won’t much longer.)

Case after case filed against Christian students, teachers, organizations and churches, have made it clear that ACLU really stands for “Anti-Christian Liberties Union.” Those wishing to understand what this group is about, and what it is doing to rewrite our country’s history and take away its Christian heritage, should read George Grant’s book, Trial and Error.

Staying in our home for several days, Alexandra Marcus, World Relief’s Southern Africa director, accompanied me to the prayer meeting at Gresham city hall. Alex was deeply disturbed at the court action against the gathering. She said, “I was born in a country [Mozambique] where I saw injustice and suffering and all the results of godlessness. I became a citizen of the United States of America because it was different, because God was recognized here, and that made it a decent place to live. Now I come home from Africa to visit, and people are being murdered in the cities, and I’m told I can’t even pray on state property. It’s unbelievable.”

America’s Godly Roots

If we had gathered at city hall on May 7 for any peaceful reason other than prayer or Bible reading there would have been no problem. If this had been a gathering of NAMBLA, the North American Man-Boy Love Association (whose motto is “Sex Before Eight or It’s Too Late), the ACLU would likely have gone to court to make sure its civil liberties were not denied, and that the city was not discriminating against a group just because it didn’t approve of its character. If instead of Bibles, those attending the May 7 gathering would have held pornographic magazines, the ACLU—and most likely the court—would have opposed any attempts at preventing or censoring this gathering.

Shall we tear down all the monuments in Washington, DC, including the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, that have Scripture verses inscribed on the walls? Shall we boycott money, since it says “In God We Trust?” Shouldn’t the ACLU declare the Declaration of Independence unconstitutional, since it refers to our “Creator” giving people rights, and “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and the “protection of Divine providence”? I am hearing more and more Christians who are believing the propaganda about the “separation of church and state” (a term not found in the Constitution or the first amendment, nor in any original national document). We need to step back and see what history really says about the proper relationship of Christian beliefs and principles to the laws and public policies of this nation.

The four page insert in this issue is dedicated exclusively to quoting the founders and shapers of this nation, from Presidents to Supreme Courts, in order to answer the question, “America: Intended to be a secular state or a Christian nation?” If our goal is to keep the Christian religion from having a profound impact on our country’s beliefs and laws, there’s a problem. We are hundreds of years too late. It already has. The only thing we can do now is return to the beliefs and values that made this a great country, that permeate our authoritative documents, or continue denying them until there is nothing left of the country this once was.

The Sunday before the day of prayer, I came home from church and flipped on the television to watch the playoff game between the Portland Trailblazers and the Los Angeles Lakers. The game was in Las Vegas. It couldn’t be held in Los Angeles because of the riots, which had brought the death toll to over forty, the injuries to hundreds, and the looting and destruction to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Fifty years ago, someone would have begun the game by leading in prayer for the citizens of Los Angeles. Thirty years ago time would have been allotted for silent prayer for God’s grace and intervention. But this is a different America. The arena announcer, obviously uncomfortable because he knew he had to say the words just right, announced that there would be a “moment of reflection” on the events in Los Angeles. Rather than ask a higher power to intervene, we were just to think about it, as if that would in and of itself help. He then said we were to consider what we could do to make this “One nation . . . “—suddenly there was a pregnant pause. What would he say next? “Under God”? That’s what our founders said. Would he really say the G-word? No. He said, “One nation . . . with liberty and justice for all.”

There is a picture of modern America. We edit out “God” from his historic role in making us what we are. And in doing so we remove the whole foundation for “liberty” and “justice.” For these concepts are based squarely on our recognition of a Creator and Judge with standards to which each of us will be held accountable. No God, no liberty. No God, no justice. And all the “moments of reflection” will mean nothing if we look to ourselves, and away from God, for the answers.

Here, with apologies to the ACLU, is God’s formula for solving our nation’s growing social and moral crisis:

“If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:14)

A Message to the ACLU and the Church

I want to address two groups. First, the ACLU and those who hold to its value system, and second the Church.

To the ACLU and those who sympathize with its goals to strip America of its Christian heritage, I affirm your right to try to build a country around atheism. You should certainly feel free to go somewhere and try to start a nation with that philosophy.

This country, from it’s inception, was built on something else—the Judeo-Christian ethic. Rather than take away what made this country great, start your own country and build it on your own set of values. Since there will be no moral basis for right and wrong, no reason to have good laws and no reason to obey what laws you have, the result is predictable. You will either have utter chaos, or you will be able to maintain order only at gunpoint. This will be your religion-less utopia.

If this country was historically what you want to now make it now, either it would no longer exist or there would be no liberty and justice of the type you’ve been privileged to have as one of its citizens. So, go start your own country and see how far you get. But don’t ruin this one by changing it into something it was never intended to be by the people who paid for it with their blood.

What you seek for our society has already been done elsewhere. I have talked to the people in the Soviet Union who lived for seventy years in a country where prayers were forbidden on state property, and where the Christian faith and its values were kept out of school classrooms. I have heard their horror stories, seen their tears, and felt their agony at the utter ruin of their nation brought about by the social reformers who purged the Christian religion from their society. (Unlike our Constitution, by the way, the Soviet Constitution, in Article 124, says, “In order to ensure to citizens freedom of conscience, the church in the USSR is separated from the State, and the school from the church.”) The ACLU’s social experiment has already been done. Before you go on, you might want to go see the results.

The former USSR has recognized that as a direct result of removing God from their society, they are now morally bankrupt. Because hunger and crime and oppression have resulted in utter disillusionment, they now beg for Bibles and religious materials to be brought back into their classrooms. Over 3000 Soviet public school teachers are being trained to teach biblical Christianity in school classrooms.

The freedom from religion that you call “liberty” was called “liberty” in their country too. It was called that by men named Lenin and Stalin. America’s idea of founding a country on distinctive Christian principles was truly innovative. And it worked. It hasn’t been perfect, but it worked. But look around. It isn’t working anymore. Because the ACLU and others are gutting this country of the very things that made it great and free, it can no longer work.

I speak now to the church, because when all is said and done, the real problem isn’t the ACLU. The real problem is the church, which doesn’t have half the zeal for its calling as does the ACLU. How much more ground will we give? We sit passively by as city councils pass ordinances making it illegal to choose not to rent a room to someone living a lifestyle that endangers our families. We sit around debating whether the group that proposed a moral ballot measure is all we wish it was. We sit by while our schools work with Planned Parenthood and abortion clinics, and pass out condoms to students in the hallways. We look the other way while peaceful abortion protestors are put in jail for months and violent gay rights activists don’t spend the night in jail.

On May 6 one high school principal announced that students coming to gather for prayer around the flagpole would be suspended from school. Isn’t that a picture—suspended for praying. It reminds me of the Texas school where children were threatened with tear gas if they didn’t stop praying. Think about it. We have drugs dealt in school hallways, condoms passed out by the school itself, vulgar language and pictures on t-shirts, an epidemic of teen suicide, and kids (in some cities, teachers) assaulted and raped on school property. So let’s crack down and get tough—suspend kids who pray! When prayer is banned at graduation, Christian valedictorians are forbidden from saying the word “Christ” (unless they choose to swear, which is acceptable), children are told they can’t talk about God at school, where is the church? What are we doing?

What will we do next year when our cities say we can’t pray at city hall? Some will stay home, figuring you can pray anywhere. (Of course you can, but that’s not the point). Others will stay away from city hall, thinking they are just being submissive law-abiding citizens, not understanding that their children and grandchildren will pay dearly for every inch of ground they give now.

The government of Babylon, influenced by the ancient equivalent of the ACLU, ordered that no one should pray to any but Nebuchadnezzar, head of state. When told it was against the law to pray to his God, Daniel could have quietly prayed in secret and not made waves. But he didn’t. He chose to make waves, not out of belligerence, but righteousness. He went right to his window, clearly visible from the streets, got down on his knees, and prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10).

Daniel knew what truly good Christian citizens know, or used to know—that there comes a time when the line is drawn, and must be crossed. And if we are unwilling to pay the price now, we scorn our grandfathers who paid the price of liberty and righteousness before us, and we make the burden heavier on our grandchildren when they will have to pay the price after us.

We have let the Bible and prayer be taken from our schools. We let babies be killed. We let immoral and destructive lifestyles be celebrated and taught and called beautiful and gay, at taxpayer’s expense. Very few Christians have protested the fact that across our country churches are being denied building permits and being told they cannot operate schools. Will we let prayer become illegal on all public grounds? Why not, considering everything else we’ve allowed? And what will we do when they tell us we can’t exercise church discipline for adultery? Or carry a Bible in public? Or make value judgments from the pulpit on lifestyles the Bible condemns? A retreating church always tells itself it will take a stand eventually, but it usually doesn’t. Or by the time it does it’s too late.

If we retreat to our churches and accept rulings that tell us the Christian faith can only be exercised in our church buildings (if the state is gracious enough to let us have them), then our influence will never go beyond our churches. We will become pathetic communities of people, cowering in the corner, apologizing for our Lord and hoping no one finds out what we really believe, lest we be persecuted. Our goal will be to avoid at all costs the conflict which Christ promised all who follow Him (2 Timothy 3:12), to hang on to and protect from lawsuits our material possessions and church buildings, as if they were what the church is about.

May God give us the courage to stop rationalizing our cowardice in the name of “not wanting to appear unsubmissive or controversial.” May we stand up for our Lord in gracious and gentle, but firm and resolute ways that refuse to allow the Creator of the Universe and Savior of Mankind to be pushed into a remote corner of a society that desperately needs to see Him as he is, and which has no hope apart from the truth He has told us to publicly proclaim.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries