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The wide middle ground

Faith does play a place for many in their civic decisions

Rev. Emily C. Heath serves as pastor at the West Dover Congregational Church. For many years, she was a hospital chaplain.

Dover

Newfane Town Moderator Deborah Lee Luskin commented here recently [June 6] that “in Vermont, gods don’t vote.” Her piece was ostensibly about the recent decision of the Vermont Superior Court to rule as unconstitutional an explicitly Christian prayer at a town meeting.

I am a Christian pastor, so it might surprise Luskin to know that I support that ruling.

I have reminded others often that civic observances must respect the religious diversity of the entire community. A Christian prayer is not appropriate, even if the majority of (or even all) attendees at a local civic event are Christian.

I’ve on numerous occasions also reminded organizers of other events that asking attendees to recite the Lord’s Prayer (containing the words of Christ) is not appropriate in a diverse religious group. I take no exception to the court ruling which disallows Christian prayers at town events.

But as a person who believes there to be a wide middle ground between religious fundamentalism and the complete rejection of faith from the public arena, I do find some frustration with the insinuations in Luskin’s piece.

* * *

Recently, I delivered the opening devotional for the state legislature; this happens every morning the body is in session. It also happens at state houses across the country, and in the U.S. Congress. My devotional followed the guidelines of being inclusive of other faiths and focused upon our state ideals of freedom and unity.

In other areas of government, chaplains are serving as support to the military, fire and police departments, veterans, and others. Their job is to provide support for those who are called upon to make difficult decisions and lead a life of service.

These chaplains are not allowed to proselytize. They are simply asked to serve those who serve us. I’m glad that they are there, and I am thankful that a place for them in public service still remains.

That notion might seem antiquated to some, such as Luskin, for whom a religious house of worship is just a place to go for funerals, after which the “church ladies put on a great spread.” (And, actually, we engage people of all genders in the ministry of hospitality at my church.)

Churches are vital places that hold deep meaning for those of us who serve in this way, both as people of faith and as people called to make decisions in the public arena.

At my congregation, people who never vote the same way in November sit across the aisle from one another, participate in fellowship together, and try to discern how to live an ethical life of service to others.

We believe in a specific set of beliefs, but we do not try to impose them on others at town meeting, or anywhere else. We do, however, believe in asking for the help of a higher power, whom we call God.

* * *

I understand that Luskin and others have reason to be distrustful. I grew up gay in the Bible Belt, so no one needs to preach to me about judgments made by religious folks.

But that doesn’t mean that faith and the public square should be divided.

There should be limits. Religious groups should not have the right to deny the rights of others, nor should they be given an official endorsement of any kind by the state.

But faith does have a place for many in their civic decisions.

Rev. Martin Luther King often spoke about how his advocacy for the Civil Rights Act came from his faith convictions — not his democratic ones. It was because he was a man of faith, not in spite of it, that opinions began to change.

Today, many faith leaders are picking up a new fight and advocating for equal rights for LGBT people. I engage in the pursuit of justice for many reasons, but foremost among them is the fact that my faith compels me to do so.

I know I’m not the only one. And I know I’m not the only one who values the fact that in many places the gravity of making civic decisions is such that we take a moment, reflect on something greater than ourselves, whatever it may be, and then proceed, grounded in that realization.

So long as no one set of beliefs is being championed, we will not be denying anyone’s rights. And besides, maybe we all need a moment to remind ourselves that we don’t always have all the answers, even if we have all the votes.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #156 (Wednesday, June 13, 2012).

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