Institutions Trying to Be More Inclusive With Public Prayer

March 23, 2009

Author: Kathryn Kennedy

Source: The Daily Reflector

One must only drive around Greenville to see how religiously diverse the community is today.

The city houses all the world's major religions, Mayor Pat Dunn pointed out: The Al-Masjid Islamic Center, Congregation Bayt Shalom, The Hindu Society, a Tibetan Buddhist Meditation & Study Center, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, Protestant, Catholic and Evangelical churches.

There are no statistics available for Greenville or Pitt County in particular — the U.S. Census Bureau doesn't record religious data. But a recent American Religious Identification Survey showed increases in non-believers, Muslims, new religious movements like Wicca or Scientology, and nondenominational Christians nationwide. And as Greenville's population grows, so do the minority groups.

“The university and medical school bring in people from all over the world. When that happens, you will get a bigger picture of what the world religions are,” said Debi Habiba Niswander, leader of the Interfaith Alliance of Eastern Carolina which represents nine religious traditions and non-believers.

City government and other institutions are reacting to that growth in an effort to be more inclusive in a long-standing national tradition — public prayer.

“We have 200 years of history if you go back,” Dunn said, noting that Congress opens with a prayer. City Council has a prayer schedule wherein each council member has a turn at delivering the invocation.

Niswander, who is a Universal Sufi, said a large part of the Interfaith organization don't want people to stop praying before meetings and banquets — though a couple are concerned with the separation of church and state. Most just want to feel recognized.

“It's a social norm,” she said. “To ask them not to (pray) is not right either. To ask them to do that where it includes everybody in that room, I think that is right. And needed.”

With that idea, the Interfaith Alliance held a discussion on inclusivity in public prayer in February. More than 20 people of various religious backgrounds and traditions took part.