Freethought San Marcos: A column
by LAMAR W. HANKINS
For many years, city councils around the country have allowed their meetings to be used to promote Christianity, mostly of the evangelical kind. In 2009, we found a large number of challengers pushing back against this promotion of Christianity by local governments all around the country. They have been speaking up and demanding that such advancement of religion, mainly Christianity, by their local governments cease. They point out that the entanglement of local governments with religion violates the First Amendment as that is understood by the courts, including the Supreme Court.
In 2009, city councils challenged about their sectarian prayers ranged from Fresno (Calif.) to Wheaton (Ill.) to Lakeland (Fla.) to North Richland Hills to Cleveland (Ohio) to Roanoke, (Va.) to Yucca Valley (Calif.) to Memphis (Tenn.) to Lodi (Calif.) to Addison (Ill.) to Tehachapi (Calif.) to Tampa (Fla.) to Batavia (Ill.) to Houston to Turlock (Calif.) to North Kansas City (Mo.) to St. Charles (Ill.) to Twentynine Palms (Calif.) to La Crosse (Wisconsin) to Lompoc (Calif.) to Villa Park (Ill.) to Toledo (Ohio) to Joshua Tree (Calif) to Chesapeake (Va.) to West Chicago (Ill.) to Bakersfield (Calif.) to Shelby (Ohio) to Lancaster (Calif.) to Victoria to Philadelphia (Penn.) to Independence (Mo.) to Tustin (Calif.) to Elmhurst (Ill.) to San Marcos.
The challenges have been supported by the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU). The legal problem pointed to in every case is that the city councils promote religion, especially Christianity, either exclusively or primarily, in their prayers and invocations.
Many of these city councils have tried to avoid a religious entanglement problem by opening up the invocations to prayers from different religious traditions, including some that are outside of Judeo-Christian practices. A few have chosen to start with a moment of silence. A handful of city councils have chosen to defy the objectors by continuing with their exclusively Christian invocations.
Frequently, emotions have run high, with Christians arguing that this is a Christian nation and that beginning a meeting with a Christian prayer is, therefore, appropriate. Of course, this position begs the question. While most of the founders of this country were Christians of one sort or another, they chose to create a secular government. Not once in the Constitution they wrote did they mention God or Christianity.
One of the Constitution-based arguments against sectarian invocations is that when a person is invited to speak for and represent the city government, any prayer must be nonsectarian. Otherwise, the government is endorsing one religion over another, or religion in general, rather than remaining neutral about religion as the Constitution requires.
When sectarian prayers are offered before city council meetings, the government clearly shows bias toward one religion. As one attorney said, on behalf of a complainant against the practice of a California city council, “Public officials are not only alienating a large swath of the non-Christian constituents they represent, but they are also clearly violating one of the most basic principles of the Constitution – that government must not favor one religion over others.” When public meetings are opened with prayers in the name of Jesus, the government places its imprimatur on Christianity.
People of good will around the country have offered suggestions to make city council prayers and invocations more palatable and less Constitutionally suspect. A United Methodist Church minister in Lompoc, CA, had this suggestion for a preface before all city council invocations, a sort of disclaimer to protect the city council from litigation:
“The city of Lompoc endorses no religious faith, but respects and celebrates the many people of different faiths who reside here. The City Council historically begins its sessions with an invocation offered by one of the religious leaders of our community with full appreciation of our shared belief that we are, ‘one nation under God’ and we respect the religious freedom and freedom of expression of all our citizens to pray as they feel led to pray.”
This sounds reasonable until you begin to look at who is left out of his proposal. It includes only people of faith. What happens to the Buddhists (who are not a faith in the usual sense) and the atheists or other non-believers, however they are described? They make up over 15% of the population in the U.S. and are even more prevalent among our youth. Should they be excluded from full citizenship, ostracized, and left out of the governance of the city? Not everyone in a community believes that “we are, ‘one nation, under God.’” The prayer that will follow the disclaimer leaves out these groups.
A recent decision (January 28, 2010) from a United States District Court in North Carolina analyzed the current state of the law with regard to such invocations. and concluded, following Supreme Court jurisprudence and that of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals: “When we gather as Americans, we do not abandon all expressions of religious faith. Instead, our expressions evoke common and inclusive themes and forswear … the forbidding character of sectarian invocations.”
Many city attorneys have noted language in the leading Supreme court decision that addresses legislative prayer, Marsh v. Chambers, where the court held that the prayer opportunity must not be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.” In following the Marsh decision, a 4th Circuit Court of Appeals opinion in 2004 held that any sectarian invocations of deities in legislative prayer demonstrate affiliating the government with a particular sect or creed and/or advancing a particular faith or belief: “Marsh does not permit legislators to … engage, as part of public business and for the citizenry as a whole, in prayers that contain explicit references to a deity in whose divinity only those of one faith believe.”
The city attorney in San Marcos, Texas, advised the city council to adopt an opening prayer practice that attempts to insulate the city council from the holding in Marsh and other cases. The San Marcos City Council adopted a scheme last summer that provided in part that “The opportunity to offer an invocation is a privilege and not a right. The opportunity shall not be exploited to advance any one religion, disparage any other religion, or to proselytize. Violations of this policy may result in removal from the rotation list.” Despite violations of the policy (mainly by praying in the name of Jesus), no one has been removed from the rotation list.
One flaw in this scheme is that it establishes the city council as the purveyor of a privilege of practicing religion in its chambers as a part of official government business, a notion that eats at the heart of the First Amendment’s prohibition against an establishment of religion. In addition, the policy limits invocation participants to “clergy,” though at least two religious groups that have no clergy at present in San Marcos have been allowed to offer invocations through a representative. The policy further limits participation to those who represent a “faith tradition,” effectively excluding others who are not a part of a faith tradition, but who are capable of giving an invocation, which is nothing more than a petition for help or support. This provision makes clear that the city council is promoting religion over non-religion.
Since the adoption of this new invocation scheme in San Marcos, there have been fourteen invocations at regular city council meetings. All but one of those prayers were directed to the Judeo-Christian God. That invocation was offered by a member of the San Marcos Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. Nine of the prayers specifically invoked the name of Jesus, with phrases like “In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior,” “In Jesus’ name we pray,” and similar phrases. While many of the prayers were fawning and jingoistic, suggesting the righteousness of city council members, the city, and the country, this new scheme is an improvement over past practices when all the prayers were prayed in Jesus’ name, but it continues to be constitutionally defective.
Thirteen of the fourteen invocations given since the change in the invocation policy before the San Marcos City council were sectarian prayers–acts of religious worship to the Judeo-Christian God. They were done at a time when the chamber was full of citizens who came to participate in the governance of the city. Frequently, visitors and citizens in attendance when the prayers were introduced were asked to behave in a certain manner, e.g., stand and bow their heads–a clearly religious practice. Visitors and citizens in attendance were referred to in many of the prayers, if not all of them, as in the use of the inclusive “we” in reference to speaking to God for all in attendance.
The public broadcast of the prayers over the internet and cable television provides the City Council a way to religiously exhort those of its citizens who watch via those mediums. And the invocation is difficult to avoid if one wants to do so: The agenda is not followed in the order posted, making it difficult to know when the invocation will be called for. The invocation is never placed at the beginning of a meeting, but posted often as the 5th or 6th item, and may be done after a workshop, an executive session, and after proclamations are issued, so city council members, officials, administrators, and staff, as well as visitors present at the meeting cannot easily avoid participation, or be absent, during the prayer.
One characteristic common to these cities that practice offering Christian prayers at their public meetings is the insistence by vocal Christians that the practice be continued and opponents be damned. But there is at least one constitutional option available to these devout Christians who believe that it is important to demonstrate their piety by praying in public. During the public comment period offered by most city councils, they can use their allotted time to pray publicly. This would be a way to use their free speech time to witness to their faith, and it would not place the government in the position of promoting religion, since anyone can speak during these times about any subject that concerns the speaker.
Jerry Moore, the Opinions Editor for Suburban Life Publications in Downers Grove, Illinois, expressed the spirit of the legislative prayer court decisions well when he wrote: “People shouldn’t look to their local governments for spiritual inspiration. If a topic isn’t secular in nature, it’s none of the government’s business. Municipal bodies should remain neutral on religious matters, and they must have the courage to tell residents that divine invocations at meetings isn’t appropriate. Let’s leave religious issues to the church and public issues to the state.”
And he could have reminded Christians, the only sect pushing for government prayers that I have found, about Christ’s teaching about prayer found in Matthew, chapter 6, verses 5-8 (New International Version):
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
One of the greatest ironies of this government prayer promotion is that the most prominent proponents of it are the Christian evangelicals, who believe most literally in the words of the Bible. None of them have ever explained publicly how their behavior can be reconciled with the teachings of Jesus, such as those quoted above. It is a feeble and flaccid religion that needs the imprimatur of government to find its relevance. If all who call themselves Christian followed the admonitions of Jesus, we would not have a problem with sectarian prayers at city council meetings throughout the United States.
© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. HankinsEmail | Print