I’ve never been to Lancaster, California, and the fault is mine. A good friend is now mayor. He’s also a personal injury lawyer with a big shop. I had a standing invitation to come visit him in Lancaster for many years, but I never made the trip. Now I am half-hoping my friend calls me to ask me to defend him.
R. Rex Parris was elected last week to a second term as mayor of Lancaster. It’s a desert town of about 150,000 people some 70 miles from Los Angeles. The day he was elected, voters also approved a measure that permits the town council to open meetings with prayer. The press out there is muttering that folks have been invoking the name of Jesus before town meetings. The American Civil Liberties Union is aching to file suit.
Parris is defiant. "There are few places I am more comfortable than in a courtroom," he boasts. And his boast is not without foundation. He’s knocked back some big verdicts and settlements in personal injury and class action consumer cases. But as near as I can tell, Rex has thus far left constitutional issues alone. He’s now smack dab in the middle of a constitutional dispute.
Months before the election, Parris caused a furor when he told a group of assembled clerics that Lancaster was "growing a Christian community." What about us?," Moslem community members cried. Parris retracted the remark, and wisely so.
The Lancaster prayer ordinance does not specify what deity, if any deity at all, must be invoked. The town is not impressing upon residents orthodoxy. The right to offer the prayer rotates among participants. Nothing stops the likes of me from asking for a moment of silent in deference to the chaos from which we sprang to and to which we return.
Frankly, I have only a dim comprehension of the need for ceremony to open a public event. I suppose I’ve been a lawyer long enough now to accept the odd affectations with which we open court. We are commanded to stand as the judge enters the room. Robes aflutter like some Mosaic figure descending Sinai, the judge enters. A marshal rattles through an admonition to heed the proceedings, and off we go. I suppose it is more decorous than "play ball!"
In truth, however, even baseball games open with more than is really necessary. Why the national anthem? Why do we all stand, hands placed over our hearts and mouth just enough of the words of the anthem to assure our neighbors we’re not al Qaeda? Ceremony, it seems, is good. We need ceremony.
So if Lancaster chooses to open its town meetings by permitting folks to invoke the deity of their choice, what’s the harm? Sure, it has a sad, sort of twelve-step feel to it, but we all struggle against the darkness the best we can. Go ahead and ask for light. We are seekers all, whether we care to admit it or not.
I was stung recently by the loss of a criminal trial. So stunned, in fact, that I re-read Martin Buber’s I and Thou. Buber was a Jewish theologian. He felt much sacrilege was done in the name of God. In I and Thou he set about making the world safe for reverence. His point, simply put, is this: Wonder defines us. We confront the world, each of us, with meager resources. Remaining open to the presence in the world of an unknowable other, whether that other be in the form of the person sitting across the room, or the forces that brought the world into being, is a source of spiritual vitality. We need, Buber reminds, to make room for the possibility of awe. There is no shame in marveling over the mystery of simply being alive.
And so the good folks of Lancaster will set about doing so at their town meanings. Some of them will offer prayers to folks and deities that defy rational comprehension. Some may offer silence, my preference, in the face of what can only be accepted, and never really known. This strikes me as a long, long way from spiritual totalitarianism. It looks a little like health. The battle in Lancaster is well worth watching.
Good luck, Rex.
Reprinted courtesy of the Connecticut Law Tribune.