Voice of the people: Jeff Turnage




In response to Roses and Thorns 


In last Sunday's Dispatch, the editorial staff praised the City of Starkville for sending the National Day of Prayer event to a private church for the Day of Prayer event. As well, the article criticized the other Golden Triangle cities, suggesting they too ought to disallow the event on government property. For support of the Rose to Starkville and the pot-shot at other cities, Dispatch cited us to the First Amendment and suggested that prayer on public property amounted to some sort of government endorsement of religion. Neither conclusion is correct. I don't write to criticize Starkville.  


I write to reject your criticism and to explain why you are way off base. 


The First Amendment forbids the government from "abridging the freedom of speech ." 


It is fundamental in constitutional law that religious speech is protected by the First Amendment. It cannot be outlawed. In Widmar v. Vincent, the U.S. Supreme Court specifically included worship as a form of protected speech. Activities such as prayer, worship, and other religious speech, are protected under the First Amendment. 


Achieving separation of church and State cannot justify the government's suppression private speech (even on the Courthouse steps) because the Establishment Clause forbids only the government from "establishing religion." The Supreme Court has recognized that "there is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing religion, which the Free Speech and Free Exercise Clauses protect." Private citizens, therefore, may engage in prayer in public without fear of violating the Establishment Clause. 


Any attempt by Government to deny equal access to a public forum for prayer and worship based on concerns about violating the Establishment Clause are unjustifiable. A policy of equal access for religious speech conveys a message "of neutrality rather than endorsement. If the government refused to let religious groups use facilities open to others, such an act would demonstrate not neutrality but hostility toward religion." When government allows non-religious speakers to engage in protected speech activities on courthouse lawns, steps, or other such locations, it is simply acting in a neutral manner inclusive of free speech rights, rather than violating the Establishment Clause. 


Finally, the National Day of Prayer was held by private individuals for the last several years on the County Court House lawn, which is owned and controlled by the County Supervisors, not the City of Columbus. So there should have been no criticism of the City. Your paper goes overboard to criticize local government. From time to time the agencies you target deserve criticism. However, this time, your staff missed the mark on a fundamental issue much worse than putting the wrong date on the paper. The Dispatch should praise, not downplay, the importance of citizen's prayers -- wherever they take place. 


Jeff Turnage 





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