In the past week, the Telegraph Herald has carried a couple of articles concerning the overlap and division between church and state.
On Saturday, a news article reported on a River Bend regional food bank’s instruction to faith-based organizations, including those in Dubuque, stating that since some of the food they receive and serve at their free meals for the needy comes from the federal government, a pre-meal prayer is prohibited.
On Thursday, we carried an opinion piece written by a Dubuque pastor, the Rev. Dr. Lillian Daniel, whose First Congregational Church has provided free meals in the community every week for a quarter-century. Those meals are preceded by a brief prayer of thanksgiving.
Pastor Daniel stated her position on that prohibition more eloquently, but the bottom line was this: At First Congregational’s meals, they will keep praying.
Here we have a situation where government fails to provide sufficient leadership and investment to adequately assist people in need, and is perfectly willing to sit back and watch compassionate people in the private sector, especially faith-based organizations, try to fill the gaps. But then government expects to tell these compassionate people what they can and cannot do in their own church halls.
These not-for-profit institutions are stepping in to address real and chronic needs in our communities — in Dubuque, the tri-state region and nation. Certainly, they receive some government assistance by being permitted to receive free or reduced-price food. But the government-sourced food is not the total meal — at First Congregational, Daniel said, it is about 40%. Yet government wants to call 100% of the shots concerning what words are spoken before the meal is served.
In reality, government should be thanking and wholly supporting the men and women who, as volunteers carrying out their commitment to help the needy, are letting government off the hook.
If government doesn’t want faith-based organizations to offer a brief prayer of thanksgiving over a free meal, then government needs to gear up, build some kitchens and operate its own meal sites all across the country.
As is true in any controversial situation, there are lines to be drawn.
Guests should not be obligated or pressured to participate in prayer as a condition of receiving a free meal. We certainly cannot abide practices like those seen in 19th century Europe, where Protestant churches demanded that starving Irish Catholic immigrants renounce their religion before eating at their soup kitchens.
While guests should not be pressured or proselytized, we don’t think that is happening when one is in the same room as someone offering brief words of thanks. Indeed, allowing hosts to offer their own prayer in thanks for the food and for their guests does not infringe on a guest’s right to ignore the proceedings or to find a prayer-less location for a free meal.
If the federal government actually believes someone offering a brief prayer violates the principle of separation church and state, then let the federal government make the next move. Start with the invocation opening each session of the U.S. House and U.S. Senate. Then order state legislatures and city councils to do the same. Then remove “In God We Trust” from our coins and currency. And certainly don’t allow clergy to offer gravesite prayers for fallen heroes at Arlington National Cemetery.
Faith-based organizations are providing a great service,
addressing a need that government is unable or unwilling to match. Government should leave them alone.