Prayer in a Public Institution

By Harvey L. Lineberry, II, Assistant Dean for Personnel, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, North Carolina State University

Prayer in a public institution and workplace can be a one-way road to dissension and divisiveness, or it can find itself as the “chalice” or “conveyer” of constructive education and meaningful dialogue. The outcome of this issue is most often driven by many factors within an organization and most notably as a function of leadership, both formal and informal, as a means of effective organizational movement. Additionally, for public entities this issue is interlaced with legal
At first glance, the easy road to choose is to ignore this matter all together and just allow each situation to deal with this issue in its own way and to manage the fall-out of that strategy. It takes enormous leadership leaps of integrity to address this in a direct, honest, professional and caring way that serves to build the organizational skill tool-kit that helps not only the immediate organization, but hopefully the community, state and nation. We must ask ourselves the difficult questions: What is it that innately drives us to label negatively those whom we perceive as “less than” in order to make ourselves feel more powerful or more deserving? What role and responsibility do we have in understanding this dynamic and changing it for our children and the multi-faceted society that we know is on its way in the years and decades to come? Based on this knowledge, it is incumbent on our institutions and organizations to help us with this education and to challenge us. Growth is not always painless, but neither is it something that can be delayed to any great extent without consequences.

It is important to note that during these past few months we have reached the full gamut of viewpoints on this issue. There have been individuals within our organization indicating that the “University” would not “allow” prayers to be said, which raised concern by many within and outside of our organization. We have also experienced our employees attending a meeting (not sponsored by the College) where a person was invited to “stand outside” when they expressed their concern over a traditional prayer being spoken at a public meeting. It is clear, there are heightened emotions at both ends of this issue and our goal is to find a place of respect and common ground where we can deal responsibly with each person in our organization, community and clients. Again, the easy road is to complain and talk about all the reasons why the “glass is half-empty,” rather than invest the energy and time to educate ourselves about how that glass could be portrayed as “half-full,” and the reasons why we should look at it so.


Bound by Law

As educators and public servants connected not only with the State of North Carolina, but the federal government as well, we must be aware of the foundation or basis of the concern over prayer in a public environment. We are bound by law, legal precedent and the First Amendment of the Constitution, which mandates separation of church and state in the sense of any and all religion. The information which is available regarding the various specific legal cases serve as the true foundation of “WHY” this is fact, but in no way frames the “HOW” part of the discussion.

Within the context of our responsibility as a public institution we can better explain a different approach to the “why” and to help you with the “how.” Former U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren spoke to these issues in great detail in his memoirs. You might know that as Governor of California he was part of the decision making team which chose to inter Japanese Americans during War World II and was seated as Chief Justice when the landmark civil rights and desegregation decisions were made in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The following is an excerpt from his memoirs:

We (the Supreme Court) also were heavily attacked by many people, particularly legislators, when we declared compulsory prayers in the public schools to be unconstitutional. I vividly remember one bold newspaper headline saying, “Court outlaws God.” Many religious denominations in this same spirit condemned the Court, although most of them have receded from that position. Scores of Constitutional Amendments and legislative bills were proposed in the Congress to circumvent the decision but were later abandoned when the public came to recognize that the ruling was not an irreligious one. Rather it tried to maintain the separation of church and state guaranteed by the First Amendment. ….. The majority of us on the Court were religious people, yet we found it unconstitutional that any state agency should impose a religious exercise on persons who were by law free to practice religion or not without state interference. (“The Memoirs of Chief Justice Earl Warren,” page 315.)

Part of this premise is to understand that our society is majority Christian. This majority position can often lead us to make assumptions and/or to proceed without thoughtful planning as to our impact on others. These majority assumptions play out in every facet of our lives and every day of our lives – and in playing out, be it through “omission” or “commission” the reality is that it can be extremely hurtful and reflects a lack of respect for those who are “discounted.” In addressing the issues of “majority,” Chief Justice Warren notes “… it is human nature for the dominant group in a nation to keep pressing for further domination, and unless the Court has the fiber to accord justice to the weakest member of the society, regardless of the pressure brought upon it, we never can achieve our goal of ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ for everyone.” (“The Memoirs of Chief Justice Earl Warren,” page 335.)

Our Responsibility

We, within the requirements of the law, have a responsibility to honor and respect all who are present in our programs, meetings, classrooms, and in our offices. We have a responsibility to our colleagues to be aware and informed on these issues and to exercise professional sensitivity in all situations over which we have control or are planning. When asked to give a public “prayer” or remarks as a meeting begins or ends, or at a meal time, it is important that these remarks, delivered in a secular setting, should serve to bind your group together in a common concern that is identifiable to every person and not dependant on any particular faith. Again, either by omission or commission, words directed and built with Christian phraseology can become unintentionally divisive because they exclude persons of other faiths, or those not expressing a position of faith. Individuals who lead the general community in prayer have the responsibility to be clear about the public nature of the occasion and respectful of the composition of the audience. Words spoken on behalf of an entire community, University, or College, should be easily shared by any listener, regardless of their beliefs and is both a privilege and a marked responsibility.

Some make the comment that this approach to the issue does not “honor” their particular belief system. Everyone has a right to his or her own religion and that is in essence the point of this entire issue – EVERYONE HAS A RIGHT TO THEIR OWN RELIGION and no one should feel infringed upon. Our challenge is to offer words that are reflective of this understanding and respectful of all. If you are uncomfortable in planning and delivering secular and inclusive remarks, then you should feel free to decline any invitation to offer one. It is a matter of inclusiveness, both for you and for the audience and we want to be clear about our intent to be sensitive to that fact. As educators, we can very quietly and effectively step up to the plate and help all our partners across the state to see how we accomplish this inclusive language through example rather than presenting this as “we are not allowed to pray.” Again, it is so important to look at what holds us together in common ground rather than to seek out that which divides us from one another – do our words and actions seek to build rather than tear down or do harm?

Our Challenge

It is logical to see the United States as one of the most religiously diverse nations in the world. Some accounts show that non-Christians number in excess of 20% in the U.S. and that this number is growing each year. Suffice it to say, diversity, or pluralism, is a fact of life and one that any dynamic organization must recognize and address in a proactive and forward thinking manner. However, it is extremely important to understand that religious diversity means only that different religions (including non-religious beliefs) coexist and in no way implies that individuals accept these religions or positions as valid. Therefore, our challenge is to determine how we express respect for each person at the place they find themselves in their religious journey and still be true to an organization founded on the principle of advancing the purpose of education through the “extension” of research to our clients statewide. Most people in the U.S. and the rest of the world probably take an exclusivist, or “dominate” position: they believe that their religion, and only theirs, is completely true. Most believe that their God communicated universal truths by special revelation given to their spiritual ancestors or patriarchs. This knowledge has been passed on to present-day humanity, often in the form of religious texts. Many people hold tenaciously to their particular faith, believing it to be God’s revealed wish for all humanity. Some may even view other faith groups, those without a “faith community” or denominations within their own religion to be false. This type of exclusivity can sometimes develop easily into hatred, or intolerance, of any “other” interpretation of position. Religious exclusivity is often a major cause of much of the world’s civil unrest, civil wars, mass crimes against humanity and genocide. Yet, in balance to many places in the world, the U. S. has enjoyed a high level of religious freedom and a relative absence of religiously motivated conflict — even though exclusivism is probably predominant here.

Over time, the American public has developed a heightened regard for human rights, including religious freedom. Thus, they are willing to tolerate other religious beliefs, even though they consider them to be inconsistent with their own. Too many times this “toleration” is only given as long as it doesn’t impact them in any way, or ask them to modify their own sense of conduct or expression, even in public settings. If this is true, then it would appear that the best way to reduce religiously based friction throughout the world is for governments and religious institutions to promote human rights generally, religious freedom in particular, and respect for all globally.

It is to this end that I ask that we, each in our own way, seek to understand a different point of view on this issue – not in a way that seeks to change any belief systems, but to the extent that they allow us to reach a place of compassion and respect for our colleagues, friends and neighbors who may have different beliefs than we. Regardless, there is room for each of us at the table of respect and understanding for our brothers and sisters in this freedom. I would ask each person within the College, on and off campus, to join me in this effort. Speak to others in your office, or members of the Diversity Catalyst Team about what it means to honor each person within our organization and what steps might we undertake to do just that. Seek out ways to offer ecumenical and inclusive words of thanks and remember that leading in this way is both a privilege and a responsibility.

It is evident that there are many places along a continuum that we might find ourselves on this issue. We recognize this as the reality of our existence in the present nation and world and our need to understand and respect those around us. It is in being a diligent steward of our colleagues and clients that lead us to a higher place of functioning, if not understanding. This place that we find ourselves is one that honors and supports our various points of view and allows for secure footing along the continuum as we conduct our daily work. To this end, I would encourage you to find a place of humility and understanding for all of our colleagues and to look past our own “reality” to a place of inclusion and tolerance – to a place of the future. In closing, I would leave you with only a few examples of inclusive reflections.

Constructing an Inclusive Public “Prayer”

  • Seek the highest common denominator without compromise of conscience.
  • Use forms and vocabulary that allow persons of different faiths to give assent to what is said.
  • Use the language most widely understood by the audience, unless one purpose of the event is to express ethnic/cultural diversity, in which case multiple languages can be effective.
  • Consider other creative alternatives, such as a moment of silence.
  • Remain faithful to the purpose of giving thanks and that it is not used as an opportunity to preach, argue or testify.

Examples of Inclusive Reflections

Appropriate examples for use as a meal is served (these can be easily modified to begin or conclude a meeting):


We meet together in an effort to build community, to advance education and understanding. We seek the patience of one another as we strive to learn and grow and the stamina to make a difference in our state, nation and world. We express our thanks for the gifts of life and for the food that we are about to partake of.



We gather here today as colleagues and friends with attention to a common goal. That goal is the continued service to the citizens of our state through our programs and information. We understand our responsibilities as committed educators as well as learners – personally and professionally. It is obvious that we work and live in challenging times. We seek the patience of each other as we strive to learn and grow, and the stamina to make a difference in our state, nation and the world.
We express our thanks for an opportunity to gather together where we can reinforce our community principles of openness and engagement for all people, for the gifts of life and for the food that has been prepared for us. For all this, we are thankful.


A Prayer for the World
Let the rain come and wash away the ancient grudges, the bitter hatreds held and nurtured over generations. Let the rain wash away the memory of the hurt, the neglect. Then let the sun come out and fill the sky with rainbows. Let the warmth of the sun heal us wherever we are broken. Let it burn away the fog so that we can see each other clearly so that we can see beyond labels, beyond accents, gender, or skin color. Let the warmth and brightness of the sun melt our selfishness so that we can share the joys and feel the sorrows of our neighbors. And let the light of the sun be so strong that we will see all people as our neighbors. Let the earth, nourished by rain, bring forth flowers to surround us with beauty. And let the mountains teach our hearts to reach upward.
Rabbi Harold S. Kushner (with slight modification)

Thoughtful Quotes

I would like to share with you some thoughtful quotes that I think reflect the diversity of this issue and in fact, address this point from a variety of perspectives. (I should note for the record, I do not endorse any person or overall positions of those whose statements are included below, they simply serve as points of thought along a continuum.)

“I ask you to uphold the values of America and remember why so many have come here. We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”
George W. Bush, President. Address to a joint session of Congress, 2001-SEP-20.

“It is very important to understand that pluralism is part of our system. We don’t all think the same thing and part of our strength is that we come from different perspectives. We have to respect one another even when we disagree with each other. There has to be a spirit of tolerance for the views of others, while also being deeply committed to the positions we hold. If we do that, I think we can coexist and learn to love each other better.”
James Dobson, founder and president of “Focus on the Family” interviewed by Tony Snow of Fox News Channel, 2001-SEP-20

“The wiser you are, the more you believe in equality, because the difference between what the most and the least learned people know is inexpressibly trivial in relation to all that is unknown.”
Albert Einstein

“The millions of Christians in this country reflect just about every conceivable political point of view. For one highly conservative group to proclaim itself ‘the Christian Coalition’ strikes me as decidedly un-Christian arrogance…. We reflect countless races, religions and lifestyles, and we often differ on questions of morality and behavior. The only way so diverse a nation can survive is by all of us practicing a high degree of tolerance. But tolerance is not the way of the Christian right. Its leaders want to impose their one-size-fits-all morality on everyone. It won’t work. When any group tries to impose its values on everyone else, the result will inevitably be resentment, hatred and violence.”
Senator Warren Rudman

“When the dust settles and the pages of history are written, it will not be the angry defenders of intolerance who have made the difference. The reward will go to those who dared to step outside the safety of their privacy in order to expose and rout the prevailing prejudices.”
John Shelby Spong, Episcopal Bishop

“Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.”
Blaise Paschal: Often attributed to Sam J. Ervin, Jr., in “Protecting the Constitution” (1984).

“It was Christians, you know, not Pagans, who were responsible for the Holocaust. It was Christians, not Pagans, who lynched people here in the South, who burned people at the stake, frequently in the name of this Jesus Christ.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speaking at Ebenezer Baptist Church, to participants in the annual meeting of the U.S. Conference for the World Council of Churches in 2000-JAN. (In the same speech, he reminded his audience that the racist apartheid policy in his native South Africa was also created by Christians, not Pagans.)

Quality movement in business and organization

The Language of “Blink:” A Hot New Diversity Tool
By Judith Aftergut, Executive Director, the Honoring Institute, Portland, Oregon

Quality Movement

The Quality movement in business and organization has occurred in three major phases. It began with the idea of the production line in the 1920’s at Ford Motor Company, and with the idea that each item produced is the same as every other item. In the 1970’s, the concept of continuous improvement took the quality movement to a next step. Current ideas about quality have moved to the idea that what is required in a fast changing world is the capacity to respond to change. It is not simply continuous improvement that is required, but rather breakthroughs in how people think and solve problems. That is the link to the usefulness of “snap judgments” or intuition—skills that (when used well) build people’s capacities to make the best choices in the midst of changing circumstances.

The Change Agents States

The Change Agent States
The Change Agent States project, initiated by the Cooperative Extension Service, is a catalytic step in beginning the transformation of the Land Grant system. It is a consortium of land grant institutions in fourteen states bringing the needed technical skills and training to each of the member states. Through this multistate approach, the consortium is developing successful models and systemic change strategies to support greater diversity and welcoming climates throughout the system.

The goals

  1. to build the capacity of the Land Grant system to function inclusively and effectively in a multicultural world; and
  2. to set standards and implement a vision for supporting healthy, thriving, culturally diverse communities through Extension, research and academic programs.

Change Agents States Overview