Prayer helped Jennifer Hilbert through a lot of tough times.

Through the questions surrounding her adoption and learning her mother was just 13 when Jennifer was born. Through the pain that came with her adopted mother's battle with cancer.

"Prayer is an important part of my life, period," said Hilbert, of Manchester Township. "I was raised in the church. My relationship with Jesus is very important to me. Without him, I wouldn't be who I am today."

So when it comes to praying in public, or saying grace before a meal out, Hilbert doesn't hesitate.

"We have always said grace before meals, even in public," she said.

The idea of public displays of faith make some self-conscious. Others might worry about offending someone.

Valerie Bridgeman, associate professor of Hebrew Bible/homiletics and worship at Lancaster Theological Seminary, said the key to public prayer is to avoid any appearance of proselytizing.

"I think we're super sensitive," she said. "I think we see certain kinds of expressions as proselytizing even if they appear to be private."

The issue regularly made the news over the past year as sports figures like Tim Tebow of the New York Jets and Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks made public prayer gestures a regular part of their games.

The practice of "Tebowing" on the field attracted the scorn of many last year, including opposing players who mocked the kneeling prayer during one game. In response, Tebow noted he's been kneeling to pray on the field for the past six years.

Bible not specific

The Bible isn't the best place to settle the public prayer issue.

On the one hand, Deuteronomy 8:10 seems clear: "When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you."

But compare that with Matthew 6:5, which admonishes followers about praying in public:

"And whenever you pray, don't be like the hypocrites who love to stand in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they will be seen by people."

Our sensitivity to public displays of faith can be traced to the absence of a state religion in the United States and the diversity of religions in our culture, Bridgeman said. It is important to recognize that an act such as saying grace isn't necessarily a religious statement, she added.

"I think there are a fair number of people for whom saying grace over their food is cultural as well as religious," said Bridgeman, who travels frequently and said she notices a lot of diners saying grace before meals.

The Rev. Ron Oelrich of Faith United Church of Christ in York said a spoken prayer is always given before meals with his family or church groups when they eat in public. But some are ill at ease with that public display, he added.

"I would advise people to do what they're comfortable doing," he said. "But I would encourage them to pray before their meal just to acknowledge that everything we have comes from God."

'Cause for concern'

Scott Brenner understands the conflict.

"To pray in such a manner that brings attention to the prayerful individual (warranted or otherwise) is cause for concern, especially when the pious crusades of religious institutions and jingoistic agendas of particular political parties lurk close by," said Brenner, of North York, a member of York Friends Meeting.

Brenner said he has never had a need to give thanks in a public fashion. "Simply finding peace and being still in the moment" is sufficient, he said.

The key is to preserve our freedom of religion guaranteed in the First Amendment, he added, while at the same time maintaining our freedom from religion.

Hilbert has spent time in Russia doing mission work and said she took care to avoid practicing her religion in public out of fear. Having religious tolerance is what makes America a better place, she said.

"There is nothing to be ashamed of," she added. "We should be thanking God for all we have."

Prayer poll

A 2007 Pew Research Center survey confirmed that prayer is a common religious practice in the United States. Fifty-eight percent of respondents said they pray at least once a day. Frequency was highest among women and people 65 and older. 

Facebook discussion

Several people responded to a question on the York Daily Record/Sunday News Facebook page about praying in public. Here is a sampling of those comments:

* Rebecca Moore: We sure do ... people stop to stare at the kids because no matter where the meal is, whether it's home or on the go, we give thanks...

* Keri Leaman: If people want to pray over meals in public, that's fine. I say thanks for my food in my own way. To each their own!

* Gene Borys: We all pray before all meals and sometimes when the stresses of life fall upon us or friends, we will pray anywhere at anytime!!

* Angie Adkins: I don't mind prayer in public. As long as you let my friends who practice Santeria sacrifice chickens in supplication to their Gods as well.

* Michelle Wheeler: We absolutely say grace before meals -- in public or not. And it's only to thank God and ask his blessing... Not to be like anyone else or for anyone else's approval. We love God and are very blessed and don't care who knows it.

* Mary Charlene Anderson: I pray in public. That is how my parents raised me. Give thanks.

* Jeanette Bowers: My family always says grace before meals, even at restaurants. We often say our nighttime prayers together V.I.A. phone if we are not actually together at the right time, that has some of us praying in public at times. We have also prayed spontaneously when we have seen someone in need. I believe it is becoming more acceptable again to pray in public. I certainly hope so.

* Kelly Parrish-Funke: Our family prays before our meal at home and at restaurants.