City Council Prayers Cause Trouble July 15, 2010

City Council Prayers Cause Trouble

A number of city councils are heading for disaster.

I swear, all these problems would stop if local mayors just did away with pre-meeting prayers… but they won’t. They get off on pushing their personal faith.

It’s one thing when only atheists oppose them. But when you have a minister against them, shouldn’t that be a sign you’re doing something wrong?

That’s what’s happening in Spartanburg, South Carolina (home of anti-gay ranter Linda Dogan).

Their prayers have gotten out of control:

Prayer in the public square has been under increased scrutiny since March, when Councilman O’Neal Mintz — filling in for Chaplain Jerry Clevenger — opened a council meeting with a prayer condemning abortion and same-sex marriage. Clevenger, a Sheriff’s Office employee, typically gives the opening prayer and uses less controversial language. But he does close his prayers “in Jesus’s name.”

See? Inclusive of everyone. Except Hindus, Muslims, atheists, Jews… but, really, who cares about them in Spartanburg.

Don Rollins is a minister at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spartanburg and he wants to put a stop to all this.

In May, he formally asked council to reconsider its policy on prayer — “to signal to persons outside the dominant religious paradigm that they are welcome at the council’s theological table.”

Rollins acknowledged the sensitivity of the issue and said he had seen clashes in other areas between established cultural traditions and an influx of people with different world views. But, he said, Spartanburg has “thousands of spiritual seekers who look at their elected county officials and see no acknowledgment of their equally cherished traditions.”

Rollins stated his intention is not to attack Christianity; rather, to promote “fair prayer.” He said he’s contacted 15 area clergy and asked them to join him in silent protest at council meetings.

So far, two have responded, he said.

I don’t know how successful he will be. But it’s good to see him raising the issue. If the council doesn’t stop with the blatant Jesus-ing, lawsuits may be forthcoming.

A lot of people who advocate pre-meeting prayers say that it’s not about proselytizing. It’s not about advocating Christianity. It’s about setting the right tone for the meeting — it’s an interdenominational prayer, after all, and what’s so bad about that?

With that in mind, you have to admire this Freudian slip from the council chairman Jeff Horton:

“Clevenger does not condemn anyone,” said Horton, who identifies himself as a Christian. “He prays for all council members and everyone in Spartanburg, and always includes our fire personnel and police officers and our military personnel. He doesn’t try to convert anybody to Christianity in our service, I mean our, um, meeting. He doesn’t disparage anyone. He prays for County Council to do the right thing. And I’ll tell you, we need all the prayers we can get, because we are in some very difficult times in Spartanburg.”

I have an idea. Instead of praying, focus on solving the problems.

You’re welcome, South Carolina.

But that’s not all.

In the city of Woodruff (Hey, look! Same state!), Mayor Brad Burnett says the pre-council meeting prayers will go on.

Mayor Burnett then very passionately stated that “as long as I am here and I think as long as these people who are elected sitting in front of you”, referring to city council members, “we’re going to open every meeting with prayer”. As amens were heard from citizens around the room and council members James Smith, Tony Kennedy and Toni Sloan, Mayor Burnett continued… “It doesn’t make any difference if you appreciate that or you don’t appreciate that we’re going to open our meetings with prayer”

In the absence of the preacher who was scheduled to give the opening prayer, Pastor Clarence Thomas of the Cedar Grove Baptist Church, Mayor Burnett filled in with a 70-second prayer that remembered our soldiers as we approach Independence Day. Before he prayed, the Mayor stated, “I’m going to pray and when I end praying I’m going to end my prayer in the name of Jesus. So, if you are offended by that, I just want to make sure you know, where I stand”.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has already sent them a warning letter (PDF).

The warning letter isn’t only about the prayers.

Take a look at the city’s seal:

It has the word “church” right in it.

They’re just asking for a lawsuit.

Why do these people get elected when they’re dragging their cities into losing lawsuits and wasting taxpayer money in the process?

Incidentally, the American Center for Law and Justice (unofficial motto: “Justice for all… but only if you’re Christian”) sent a response letter to the FFRF’s… note that they make no point of spelling out legal precedents in their favor. Because they’d be grasping at straws.

Their only case is that the FFRF people are meanies:

Sadly, this organization mocks religious people. A quick review of their online store tells the story: CD’s with songs titled “Nothing Fails Like Prayer.” They also sell “Bible Warning” labels, and bumper stickers that read: “The Bible: A Grim Fairly Tale.” The fact is that the FFRF is focused on attacking and demeaning religion — specifically the Christian religion.

Mockery is always allowed in America.

A local government promoting a particular faith is not.

But that’s not all.

The Atheists of Florida are filing a lawsuit against the city of Lakeland. The atheists want the invocations to end.

The organization, which filed the suit Monday, suggests in the lawsuit that the city could hold a moment of silence, in which those attending could remain seated. This would allow attendees to pray, while also providing relief to those not wanting to participate in the formal invocation.

“That way no one is uncomfortable,” said EllenBeth Wachs, director of the Lakeland chapter for the Atheists of Florida. “It’s not government’s business to tell me what to do in my religious life.”

In the lawsuit, Atheists of Florida contends that the people who are chosen have a bent toward Christianity and regularly invoke the name of Jesus Christ, which the organization believes is insensitive to other beliefs and inappropriate in government.

But that’s not all.

The American Humanist Association sent a letter to Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Mayor Linda Thompson requesting that she stop prayers during city council meetings. Their letter is far more, well, humanistic, than one which is a threat of a lawsuit:

While other organizations speaking out on this issue have raised Establishment Clause and church-state separation arguments (which indeed are valid), the AHA would like to call your attention to another aspect of this matter that apparently has gone unnoticed by you. In conducting a group prayer in the course of your employment in a workplace setting, no matter how voluntary you may feel the prayer is, you are inevitably creating an environment that marginalizes secular humanists and anyone else whose religious views would prohibit them from participating in the prayer.

Obviously, as mayor of the city and chief executive officer of city government, you are the person all other employees must respect and, ultimately, please. By suggesting that you feel it is important to start meetings with a group prayer, you are sending a message of exclusion to any employees who do not participate in that endeavor with you. Such employees no doubt would be concerned about being seen as outsiders, thereby causing them to worry about their status with you.

If these city council leaders care more about prayer than running a city, they can go run a church.

If the people in their cities were smarter, they’d vote them out of office.

In the meantime, they should keep in mind their tax dollars are being wasted over these unnecessary lawsuits.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • I think Dom Joly’s giant phone guy would be cool here:


  • Rob

    see no acknowledgment of their equally cherished traditions

    Bullshit! They don’t see them in church?

  • Matt

    Someone should volunteer to hold a prayer, then say a satanic prayer. When the Christians attack them, accuse them of being mean and mocking your religion.

  • Claudia

    I’m all for stopping opening prayer. I’m less interested in city and state seals, at least when the religious symbol is just one element and the seal is very old. Sure it’d be nicer without the cross, but if the cross is tiny and has been there for 150 years personally I think our efforts would be better spent elsewhere. Opening prayers are different because they are an overt demonstration of a certain religion by people who have power over the lives of citizens that might not share their beliefs, and hence can have reason to suspect they won’t get fair treatment. They also strike me as a more recent development than city seals, done precisely to exclude non-christians, sort of like the passive aggressive “I’ll pray for you” which is fundie for “Fuck you”.

  • I cover the Mayor and Council of Berlin, Md. They actually open with the “Our Father.” Most of the other towns and government entities at least use pretend ambiguous language, that is, they don’t use “Jesus.” Even though all are thoroughly Christian the thought is that by restricting the language to “Lord” they’re relatively safe. And that’s the troubling mindset, that they seem to believe that we’re all, in the end, praying to the same god.

  • Sarah

    As a South Carolinian, I am constantly excited to see what new way my state will embarrass itself. This post, however, brought up a question I’d never considered. If a councilman or city official is otherwise successful in his job, otherwise law-abiding and a generally good influence on the city, would voting him out of office for this issue be worth it? Please keep in mind I’m not trying to minimize the issue. Separation of church and state is essential to a fair and balanced government, and to hold out someone’s outdated and often otherwise baseless viewpoints out as goverment policy is dangerous. I’m also guessing that the overtly religious nature of the Spartanburg bleeds into many areas. But hypothetically, should an otherwise positive person be ousted due to there stubbornness on the prayer matter? I’m divided and would love arguments.

  • Benjamin Kay

    It’s one thing when only atheists oppose them. But when you have a minister against them, shouldn’t that be a sign you’re doing something wrong?

    Mind you we’re talking about an Unitarian Universalist minister here. That’s not very far removed from an atheist. Now if some Christian ministers would intercede that would be nice, but it seems they aren’t to interested in protecting religious liberty unless their religion is the one being threatened.

  • LeAnne

    I thought the midwest was bad, but the south really takes the cake. At least people in the midwest don’t have blatant disregard for laws.

  • Stephanie

    This is why I financially support The FFRF. Please donate to them! Every little bit helps.

  • Daniel

    I disagree with you about interdenominational prayers. For one, it does nothing for atheists; we’re still submitting to nothing and relying on this nothing to do a bunch of different things.

    Secondly, it violates the rights of Christians(and other religious people) to use an interdenominational prayer, because the whole point is submitting to other Gods. Its hard to explain, but I can tell you as a former devout Christian, interdenominational prayers are the equivalent of forcing a Christian to pray to Allah, or some other God they don’t believe in.

    Prayers need to be done away with in council meetings. If some people want to get together and choose to pray, that’s fine. The whole premise of prayer is submission though. You submit to whatever God(s) are being prayed to, and whoever is giving the prayer.

    If the woman had condemned abortion and homosexuality during the meeting, I would have nothing wrong with it;she is merely exercising her right to free speech.

    With prayer, the whole room has to submit to HER beliefs and HER God.

    That’s why its wrong.

  • Bob

    So, without prayer, the city council is just another bunch of corrupt, selfish types portioning out their little corner? Invoke the magic name of Jesus, and everything’s fine, all your sins and secrets forgiven?

    If your principles aren’t good without a prayer, they’re probably not worth much WITH one, either.

    “… do not pray in public like the hypocrites do,” and all that jazz.

  • Claudia

    Sarah, to be fair this is milder than Mark Sanford, comparing poor people to stray animals, the man convicted of having sex with the same horse..twice.

    Err, I get your point.

    Anyway if you have an otherwise good candidate who is in favor of opening prayers you simply need to look at the other candidates. Are any of them just as good without that flaw? If so, vote for them, unless there’s a Ralph Nader factor (the risk of ending up with a dangerous idiot because of trying to vote for the best candidate). In any case I don’t think you’re in much danger; a candidate who makes a big deal out of opening prayers is unlikely to have englightened views on the rights of gays, women, religious freedoms, civil liberties, science etc.

  • Dan

    Why do these people get elected when they’re dragging their cities into losing lawsuits and wasting taxpayer money in the process?

    Because the majority of those voters are as crazy as the people they are voting for. They’re just as religious. They WANT religion in their government buildings.

  • It’s a consciousness-raising issue. These Christianists do not perceive their arrogance as arrogance; they just see it as “what’s right.” I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: These people do not want to be part of a great country; they think they are the country.

    It stems from the “this country is based on Judeo-Christian values” meme.

  • plutosdad

    And when their schools and cities lose money that would otherwise go towards helping people, they see that as “suffering for christ”

    They don’t seem to get a county government official’s job is not to “acknowledge tradition,” it’s to run the county.

  • Parse

    With Harrisburg, I’d much prefer that the Mayor focuses on the real issues facing the city – paying for the incinerator, improving the schools, creating jobs, cleaning up Allison Hill, etc. She should leave the praying to the ‘paid professionals’ – it’s not like there’s any shortage of them in the area: A map of churches in Harrisburg.

  • Jay

    This made me wonder if the local city council meeting started with prayers or not. Sure enough, a quick search of the most recent minutes for Springfield, MO (third largest city in Missouri) show an opening prayer. But what should I expect, Springfield is the world headquarters to the AG church.

  • It’s funny how folks who are Christian want to pray in public even though Jesus spoke out against it:

    “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. [Matthew 6:5-6 (New International Version)]

    It’s pretty clear from this passage that Jesus made the same conclusions about showy public displays of piety that the current-day “new atheists” make. It’s not for God’s benefit but rather to show off for one’s neighbors.

    If God really is the God they say he is, then why do we need spoken public prayers (amplified with a PA system in some cases) for God to hear our prayers?

  • I have never been to a council meeting where I live, but I just spent a while going through the agenda and minutes for three nearby cities. There are no prayers, although they do recite the Pledge of Allegiance at each meeting. I would guess that’s pretty standard across the country. This is the San Francisco Bay Area, though. I would be shocked if they included any type of prayers, let alone specifically Christian ones.

  • This problem is really an epidemic, not just confined to the South. A quick search of the city council minutes here in Philadelphia revealed that they open every session with a prayer. In the three months I looked at it was a rabbi, a catholic priest and a Haitian clergyman (so at least there’s diversity within their monotheists). Interestingly, the minutes state in each case that “So-and-so was introduced and offered an appropriate prayer.” Makes me wonder if they work to keep them in line with the squishy, nondenominational prayers the Supreme Court has upheld for Congress.

  • James H

    Interestingly, when I read about these kinds of stories, it always seems to be “amateur” chaplains — for lack of a better formulation — who get their cities, states, and other organizations into trouble.

    The more — for lack of a better word — “professional” chaplains, I’ve noticed, tend to remember that when they are retained to deliver prayers or counsel for a mixed group, they’re there to attend to the entire group’s spiritual needs.

    I recall in particular reading of a Seventh Day Adventist military chaplain once was quite accommodating and helpful to a group of Wiccans who wanted a place on-base to pray.

  • Lt. Uhura

    Same thing in our “midwest” township meetings. I’d get so bent out of shape when I’d hear that “in Jesus’ name…” I would also say, “Praise be to Allah” when everyone else was saying “amen,” which was rude, especially since I’m not Muslim, but just my little anti-bullying response.

    Anyway, apparently it ticked off a lot of other people and it started snowballing, that and a lot of other insensitive crap the Board was doing & BLAM! We voted the entire slate of REpublican idiot loafers off & Boom, we’ve got a brand-new slate of really intelligent, sensitive, hard-working liberals — some Christians, but also a Jew & an Atheist. It’s cool.

    The prayer is gone, but the old guard & their supporters are freaked at losing power & keep playing the “You hate Christians” card in the letter to the editor. Sigh.

  • Dan W

    It annoys me that atheist groups have to resort to lawsuits just to get these damn Christian city mayors to stop this bullshit. Just because Christians are a majority in America doesn’t mean they have the right to force everyone to hold a Christian prayer before every public event, whether it be a high school graduation or a city council meeting. And couldn’t they be getting on with the event rather than wasting time on useless things like prayer?

  • Dan W

    “Daniel Says:”
    “Dan Says:”
    OT, am I alone in noticing there are a lot of people, myself included, named Dan posting here these days? 🙂

  • i find it soooo ironic religious extremists always say that they gays are trying to take over the world and push their agenda down everyone throat….we could be so lucky, may shoving something down religious fundamentalists throats will shut them up and help some of them come out of the closet.

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