Nov 10, 2013

The Consequences of Public Prayer

By Ramona Siddoway 

I read with interest about the Supreme Court deciding the fate of prayers in New York public meetings. This case centers on a suit brought in Greece, NY and the overtly Christian prayers offered at the beginning of the Town Hall meetings. At first an informal complaint was registered and as a result 4 of 12 meetings were opened with prayers from other faiths. But the feeling of being on the outside still persisted with those who were in the minority of this dominant Christian group.

At first I was peeved. So what if a person feels uncomfortable or left out because of what the dominant group may (or may not) be thinking about the lack of full participation by the relative few? Is it appropriate to file a lawsuit that may have devastatingly far reaching consequences as a result of that uncomfortable few minutes?
But then I thought back to when my husband and I attended a couples Bible study group in Angola. Every Sunday we assembled with a large group to take turns teaching lessons from the Bible and a mutually agreed upon course book. The group was technically non-denominational and while we felt generally welcomed and treated warmly, I had this nagging suspicion that attempts were subtlety made to prevent my husband and I from being allowed to teach. Although we never brought specific or opposing doctrines into the discussions about our Mormon faith we did not keep our membership or affiliation a secret. It may have been a slight I created in my mind, being very aware that many Christian denominations still do not recognize members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as Christians (although I have a sense this misinformed trend of opinion is dwindling.) The lessons available for teaching were quickly grabbed up and we never had the opportunity to teach.
The Jewish woman who brought the suit against the NY town council stated that when she did not stand with the others during the opening Christian prayer she was stared at and that the others thought she was being disrespectful. (She did not state whether or not these sentiments were actually verbalized by the others). I cannot say whether or not the people staring at the Jewish woman actually thought she was being disrespectful when she did not participate in the Christian prayer, but I respect her feeling like an outsider whether or not the others were intentionally treating her this way.
Whether or not I agree with taking a matter like this to the courts the case has caused me to reflect on how I can better treat people of differing faiths, especially in group settings where I may be part of the dominant group. Being in the minority does not necessarily mean that person will be treated different, but being in the minority does create a hyper-awareness. When in the minority we often can’t help analyzing every glance, every remark whether it is off hand or not, and wonder what others may be thinking about us. Are we really fully accepted or is it merely a fad to have us in their company? How long can we overlook our differences and focus on similarities and common goals? Will I eventually be shunned from this group? 
I have a goal to reverse the times of hyper-awareness to when I am in the dominant group and find a way to make sure a person in the minority is not feeling overtly left out, looked down upon, or judged. I may not be able to control that person’s perceptions or taking offense, but I can look to my own actions and conversation topics and do my best to be inclusive. 
I hope they don’t ban prayers from the town hall meetings, but I’m interested to see if the exposure this case has received will have a positive effect on future group meetings where prayer is encouraged.
Ramona Siddoway is a freelance writer and member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormons) where she volunteers in the Public Affairs department. The views expressed in this post are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or Interfaith Houston.



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