By Erica C. Barnett
Before a press conference last week responding to the guilty verdict in the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, Mayor Jenny Durkan handed the mic over to the Rev. Leslie Braxton, pastor of New Beginnings Christian Fellowship church in Kent, “for a prayer and some words of wisdom.”
Braxton, who is Black, had the unenviable job of setting the tone for a government press conference responding to a rare case of justice delivered in a system that continues to allow police to kill Black men and women with impunity. Durkan and SPD responded to the protests sparked by Floyd’s murder last year with an overwhelming show of force, and by barricading two police precincts behind concrete walls.
In his remarks, Braxton urged protesters to be peaceful and obey the law. “There’s no reason for anyone to burn anything, to loot anything, or be unnecessarily confrontational,” he said. He asked God to “be with us all, and let us all behave in such a way that might make others think that we know you ourselves.”
Later, interim Seattle police chief Adrian Diaz provided some secular reinforcement to Braxton’s plea: The police had no problem with demonstrations, he said, but “we cannot let the city burn.”
The same afternoon, in a press release, Durkan declared a citywide prayer. “The City of Seattle – in coordination with faith leaders – will be hosting a citywide prayer and moment of silence at 7 pm,” Durkan announced.
Seattle has not “burned,” either last week or last summer. Nor is this the first time the city has participated in an state-sanctioned prayer—a right the US Supreme Court effectively upheld in 1983, when it found that prayer at government meetings was “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country.”
However: Just because the mayor of Seattle has the right to hold a prayer at a press conference, and just because she can declare a citywide prayer, that doesn’t mean she should.
Enoka Herat, Police Practices and Immigration Counsel for the ACLU of Washington, said Durkan’s call to worship was a distraction from the real issues facing elected leaders and SPD, including police violence and racial bias in policing.
Any prayer that conscripts God to advocate for a government directive or discourage civil disobedience against objectionable policies is inherently political, a violation of church-state separation in spirit if not law.
“Whether, when, and how to pray is a deeply personal decision, and the government should not intrude on it,’ Herat said. “The city should be putting its energy into eliminating the racial injustice inherent in the way it currently polices its communities.”
Washington state is one of the least religious states in the country, with about half the population saying they don’t practice any religion. In another poll about religious affiliation, only about half of Seattle residents even nominally identified as Christian, and 37 percent had no religious affiliation.
This means, among other things, that Protestant-style imprecations to an interventionist, individualistic God is more likely to be alienating, if not offensive, to a larger percentage of people in Seattle than they might be in the Bible Belt, and that harnessing the power of an unseen but watchful Almighty to urge Seattle residents to “behave” a certain way is especially out of keeping with local mores.
Moreover: Any prayer that conscripts God to advocate for a government directive or discourage civil disobedience against objectionable policies is inherently political, a violation of church-state separation in spirit if not law.
As someone who grew up in the Bible Belt, and witnessed the flagpole-prayer debates of the late ’80s and early ’90s firsthand, I’ve often felt grateful to live in a city where public meetings don’t involve sitting through an implicitly or explicitly Christian prayer.
Especially in a secular city like Seattle, prayer should not be enlisted to defuse debates or as a performance of social justice by elected officials. Official calls to “pray for healing,” particularly those that tell people how to protest police brutality, substitute the distraction of “thoughts and prayers” for the action that leads to real justice.