Most voters favor prayer, minus Jesus, at public meetings

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Hands clasped in prayer in a circle.

Photo courtesy of Brett Jorgensen via Shutterstock

Hands clasped in prayer in a circle.

(RNS) The U.S. Supreme Court will soon rule on the constitutionality of prayer at public meetings. But a new survey finds U.S. voters clearly favor prayer — as long the public prayer is generic and not specifically Christian.

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town of Greece, New York, who filed a lawsuit against the town, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 6, 2013. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Susan Galloway, a resident of the town of Greece, New York, who filed a lawsuit against the town, speaks to the media after oral arguments at the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 6, 2013. RNS photo by Katherine Burgess

Fairleigh Dickinson University’s PublicMind survey asked about attitudes on high profile cases before the court, including Greece v. Galloway. That case addresses whether elected officials can open public meetings with religiously specific prayers, such as praying in Jesus’ name.

A Jew and an atheist brought suit in Greece, N.Y., saying the Christian prayers excluded many citizens and violated the Constitution, which bans government establishment of religion. Even when the town began inviting non-Christians to give invocations, the “establishment” issue remained a question.

“(Greece officials) were trying their best not to offend anyone by making prayers as generic as possible. In this survey we asked if this is an acceptable way to approach the problem. Three in four people said yes,” said Peter Woolley, professor of political science at Fairleigh Dickinson in New Jersey.

Most registered voters (73 percent) said “prayer at public meetings is fine as long as the public officials are not favoring some beliefs over others.” And 23 percent said “public meetings shouldn’t have any prayers at all because prayers by definition suggest one belief or another.”

The key, however, is that this case centers on generic prayer that is “harmless, if not uplifting,” said Woolley. “Americans have become more used to the idea that one denomination is not necessarily privileged over another. Even unbelievers — atheists who would say prayer ‘is not for me’ — approved” of allowing nonspecific prayer.

While support for prayer was similar for every age group and both men and women, the most religiously observant were the most inclined to approve of it.

Hands clasped in prayer in a circle.

Photo courtesy of Brett Jorgensen via Shutterstock

Hands clasped in prayer in a circle.


Among those who attend religious services (aside from funerals or weddings) at least once or twice a month, 86 percent would allow prayer, 11 percent would not.

For those who attend services a few times a year, 73 percent support it but opposition doubles to 26 percent.

But even those who seldom or never go to church backed the prayers at public meetings, with 58 percent approving and 36 percent opposing.

Surveys continually find prayer in general — not specified by denominational distinctions — is hugely popular.

Gallup, Barna Research and Pew Research Center all find that about 8 in 10 Christians (Catholics, Protestants and Mormons) say they pray at least weekly, as do Muslims and Hindus.

But there still remains a vocal minority of people who oppose having officials call on God before calling a public meeting to order.

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State often send letters to legislators and public officials relaying citizen complaints and asking them to drop the prayer practices.

The FFRF view is that “government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.”


  • The Great God Pan

    The headline strikes me as misleading. There is a difference between not opposing something and actively favoring it. Saying that non-specific prayers at public meetings are “fine” is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Such prayers are a compromise, not something that either side actually favors.

  • gilhcan

    Public meetings of secular units of our society are not religious meetings and prayer is totally out of place in such meetings.

    This evangelization–and that is exactly what it is–only means that such religious groups are hung up on numbers, they are insecure about the size of their own groups, they are out to force others to imitate them. It has nothing to do with any exhortation of Jesus.

    Prayer is religion, and it is completely offensive to those members of society who have every right not to participate in religion. The very first clause of the very First Amendment to our Constitution protects that natural right.

    Forcing any aspects of religion on others, no matter the disguise, is of the same hypocrisy as heterosexuals presuming everyone is or should be of the same orientation as they. The presumption that everyone is or should be religious is just as wrong as the presumption that everyone is or should be of the same sexual orientation as oneself. Both betray ignorance and evil.

  • gilhcan

    There are many people who disregard the rights and persuasions of others and would settle for any version of praying at secular, public gatherings. That is their method of forcing themselves on others. They call it evangelization. It is as disgusting as it is wrong and unconstitutional.

  • Jon

    By wording the survey to ask about prayers that do “not favor some beliefs over others”, it already eliminated most of the prayers that cause problems. “not favoring some beliefs over othes” seems to clearly state that prayers can’t be to “God”, “Allah”, or “Vishnu”, and so I wonder how many Christians would be comfortable with a prayer that didn’t include “Jesus” nor “God”, or anything else that “favors some beliefs over others”? The article would have been more useful if it actually gave the proposed prayer – otherwise it looks like yet another smokescreen made to permit the continued attempts by Christians to force their beliefs on others.

  • John Ragosta

    In the Town of Greece, after an initial effort at inclusion, almost all the prayers for many years have been expressly Christian. The prayers are presented with a government sanction. People in attendance, including town employees (whose employers have invited the prayers) are told to stand or bow…. There is an open period for public commentary at these meetings; anyone can pray at that time (or anytime else they would like). The question is government-sponsored prayer. Religious people should ask, as Jefferson would have suggested, whether it makes sense to allow the government to lead prayer. See Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Legacy, America’s Creed.

  • Atheist Max

    The Freedom from Religion Foundation is 100% correct that prayer does not belong in any Governement gathering.

    If the government would like to offer 30 seconds of silence “for private reflection” I have no problem with that.

    But uttering any words at all – reciting any prayer – is absolute nonsense.
    The next step would be to look around the room and pick out the atheists.

    Prayer has no place in government or on government property.

  • Atheist Max

    Science has shown that this impulse to sense ‘God’ is completely biological and it comes from evolution – it is nothing more than the highly developed yearning for Mom&Dad. We are born with it and we wouldn’t survive childhood without it.

    This inner conviction of a God is like baby teeth and we should let ourselves outgrow it.
    But Religion keeps it going because “keeping God alive” is a big industry.

    Seeing a bunch of grownups praying together is like looking at a crowd of big babies in diapers. Sad.

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  • gilhcan

    Good ideas, but shouldn’t we be “reflecting” all the time and bring the ideas of that reflection to whatever gatherings we attend in which they are pertinent, whether they be religious or secular. The practices of secular gatherings need not reflect the practices of religious gatherings, not even with silence. In fact, when we gather for secular considerations, it’s time to begin voicing what we have already reflected in civil, respectable ways.

  • gilhcan

    Atheist Max: That so-called “mom & dad” yearning, is actually an innate need for nurture and protection until we are independent, able to provide those things for ourselves–always with the help of others. It is not specifically a “mom-dad” yearning. The infant doesn’t understand “mom-dad,” but it does recognize comfort, support.

    There is more. There is the natural appreciation for existence and its presumption that it will continue as it has always been. We are taught extensions of existence as more life after this, as “resurrection,’ as “heaven,” as “eternal life.” It takes time to study and learn otherwise, time to come to terms with the realities of all the sciences and realize that the ancient mythologies of religion are just that.

  • Frank

    Hmm prayer without the one person who can make them heard and answered. Seems foolish.

  • Atheist Max

    Yes, exactly.
    I use the Mom&Dad as shorthand – but you are exactly right that the innate need for nurture and protection is a better way to describe it and something we are born with from evolution – and I find that emotionally it does stay with most people even when they become independent.

    As Daniel Dennett has pointed out in ‘Breaking the Spell’, we can transcend religion and give to each other the support and comfort that the old myths gave us once we understand that is where it is coming from.

    People pay a big price for not growing up. And religion they stay as babies..

    “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)

    Religion, when you really look at it, is disgraceful.