COMMENTARY: Mini-Marathon prayer should be more inclusive

On the morning of May 2, more than 35,000 registered participants and any number of untold "bandits" took off
down Meridian Street in the 33rd running of the One America 500 Festival Mini-Marathon. The race is the
largest half marathon and the fifth-largest running event in America. I’ve jogged it 10 times and walked
it twice. I’m proud not only of being able to drag this old body across the finish line once in a while
but also boasting of this race, its long history and its importance to the community along with other
sporting events, including the 500-mile race, the upcoming Super Bowl and NCAA Final Fours.

However, I can take no pride in the insensitivity shown to our diverse population as reflected
in a mini-marathon pre-race ritual—the invocation offered by one of our local clergy. The prayer
was disappointing and distressful.

One might argue that prayer does not even belong at a sporting event. Think about it. We don’t pause for prayer at Indiana
Pacers and Indianapolis Colts games, nor is devotion offered at Super Bowls or Final Fours. Other events in the pantheon of
storied foot racing do not mention God at the starting gate, including Bolder Boulder held at my alma mater. Boston—arguably
the country’s most prestigious marathon—does not incorporate an opening prayer.

Let’s put aside the issue of appropriateness of public prayer at a sporting event and consider
the content of this year’s mini-marathon invocation, which, while purporting to offer fellowship and
respect for all, actually sent the opposite message. Invoking the name of Jesus throughout a prayer serves
to exclude and disenfranchise those of us who are part of a religious minority. Surely, the mini-marathon
is not an event for Christians only.

Sectarian prayer offered at large, important events sends a clear message: "American" and "Christian"
are but two sides of the same coin; those who are not Christian are outsiders and not full citizens of
our country but, rather, tolerated guests. According to Kirk Hendricks, president and CEO of the 500
Festival Inc., this was not the message consciously intended. But it was the message received. It’s a
shame that insensitive behavior repeated often enough becomes accepted as the norm and is not recognized
as inappropriate.

During
my discussion with Hendricks, I learned that the clergyman who delivered the invocation is a youth minister. This minister
is the very person we count on to teach and guide, and yet he perpetuates this behavior. Our children observe these practices,
conclude that they are perfectly acceptable, and adopt them. This conduct is not just offensive to non-Christians but should
be considered offensive to all of us as Americans and citizens of a diverse community.

Perhaps this episode is just another iteration in the continuing saga of our state’s failure to
recognize true diversity and applaud it. I recall the boorish behavior in the Indiana General Assembly
in dealing with the House of Representatives’ opening prayer that resulted in prayers that repeatedly
and consistently advanced the Christian religion in violation of the establishment clause of the First
Amendment.

Judge David
Hamilton of the U.S. District Court of Southern District of Indiana ordered the speaker of the House to advise
those offering official prayers (a) that the prayers must be non-sectarian and must not be used to proselytize or advance
any one faith or belief or disparage any other faith or belief and (b) that the prayers should not use Christ’s name or title
or any other denominational appeal.

Hendricks has promised next year to issue instructions similar to the Hamilton directives. I’m looking forward to participating
in the 34th edition of the race next year—as a full and equal citizen—welcomed in every sense of the word.•

Mickey Maurer is a shareholder in IBJ Media
Corp., which owns Indianapolis Business Journal. His column appears every other week. To comment on this
column, send e-mail to mmaurer@ibj.com.

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