Oh God, Another Prayer Fight

DAVID SHIFLETT

A student senate tries to imitate the one in Washington. The ACLU is outraged.

Seth Murphy


College students often devote considerable energies to raising hell. Marshall University's Seth Murphy has discovered a novel way of doing so.

Mr. Murphy, student vice president at the West Virginia school, instituted opening prayers at Tuesday night senate meetings. He was rewarded with a shower of brimstone and, perhaps worse, he inspired opponents to organize a consciousness-raising session. On the bright side, all parties to the dispute are sharpening skills that will come in handy should they pursue postgraduate careers in culture-war combat.

Mr. Murphy started the invocations in September. "We discuss important things," he said, such as whether to put $50,000 up front to lure a popular rock band to campus. "We need all the help we can get." In an attempt to reach out, Mr. Murphy sent a letter to the dozen or so "officially recognized" religious organizations on campus asking for volunteer invocators.

That set the fireball rolling.

In his letter, Mr. Murphy set two guidelines: There should be no written prayers, which he believed would be "insincere"; and prayers should not be deity-free. "Don't come to me with some watered-down, noncommittal prayer that is nearly devoid of religious reference and that speaks of a higher power," Mr. Murphy wrote. "You don't pray to some elusive, ambiguous higher power privately or in your group. You pray to God our Father, in the name of His son Jesus Christ, and I wouldn't expect you to do any less in public."

Mr. Murphy thought he was being inclusive. Yet in a stark imitation of off-campus life, representatives from the school's Presbyterian and Methodist organizations accused Mr. Murphy of religious chauvinism. Joining the boo-birds was Ardith Michaux from Marshall's chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who sent Mr. Murphy a demand to "cease and desist." The war was on.

Mr. Murphy attempted to backpedal. "I will admit my original letter was poorly worded," he said this week. "I shouldn't have excluded written prayers because they are central to some people's faith. And I shouldn't have suggested that Jesus was the only deity that could be addressed. But all the groups I sent the letter to were Christian groups — they were the only recognized groups on campus. My whole point is that people today are made to apologize and be ashamed of mentioning any deity. People should not have to bow to that nonsense."

Mr. Murphy sent out a letter of clarification, but Ms. Michaux was not becalmed. "We elect these senators to represent us," she says. "We do not feel the prayers are right. They are a violation of the Free Exercise clause." When asked if opening prayers at the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress are unconstitutional, she replied: "Yes, they are." Mr. Murphy believe Ms. Michaux to be in grave error.

Ms. Michaux and her fellow dissenters may appeal to a higher power: the student supreme court. Meanwhile, they are organizing a forum to "educate students about the meaning of the First Amendment." Local religious leaders will be invited, though so far the only confirmed speaker is the head of the West Virginia ACLU. That may harden Mr. Murphy's belief that he is the target of a secular jihad. "I would honestly like to believe that this is not an attack on religion by the ACLU, but I don't see how it can be anything else."

Mr. Murphy says his senate colleagues insisted the prayers continue, and on Tuesday a representative from the Campus Crusade for Christ did the honors. Ms. Michaux was not amused, though she says her relationship with Mr. Murphy is civil. Indeed, this may be the start of a civil union, of sorts. Ms. Michaux, who is studying psychology and sociology, seems fully on the activist path: She is also a statewide advocate for gay, lesbian and transgender issues and may pursue a career in civil-rights law. Mr. Murphy, whose answering machine plays "Stars and Stripes Forever," hopes to follow military service with a life in politics.

"My ultimate goal," he said, "is to become governor of West Virginia." One assumes Ms. Michaux will be waiting — and watching closely.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

David Shiflett. "Oh God, Another Prayer Fight." The Wall Street Journal (January 30, 2004).

Reprinted from the Wall Street Jounral 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

THE AUTHOR

David C. Shiflett is a member of the White House Writers Group living in Midlothian, Virginia. He is the author, with Vincent Carroll, of Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry.

Copyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc


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