Atheists Protest Hartford City Council Prayers December 14, 2010

Atheists Protest Hartford City Council Prayers

When atheists protested a city council meeting in Hawaii earlier in the year, they came out on top — they were found “not guilty” of disorderly conduct in court.

Maybe that’s the inspiration for another city council protest that took place in Hartford, Connecticut last night.

Members of the Connecticut Valley Atheists plan to silently protest Monday night, by sitting instead of standing during the City Council meeting’s opening prayer.

The head of Connecticut Valley Atheists said the usual prayer before the council meeting violates the Constitution, and isn’t fair to people who don’t believe in any gods.

In a statement, president of the Connecticut Valley Atheists and the Connecticut State Director of American Atheists Dennis Paul Himes said, “There is an attitude much too prevalent in Connecticut that if all religions are covered by a policy then no one is left out. We will be there to remind the council that that is not true.”

The city council president, rJo Winch, doesn’t get why this is a big deal:

“I don’t think that they need to be able to impose their atheism on other people,” Winch said. “What about the other residents that think prayer should happen. So we do a combination of things. We welcome any religion to come in and do prayers. We even have days where we do moments of silence where there is no prayer. We try to be accommodating.”

Umm… the atheists aren’t “imposing” atheism. The “moment of silence” is not pro-atheist.

And who cares what the other residents think? Following the Constitution isn’t something you base on a popular vote.

So how did the protest go?

It went as planned but the effect was… barely noticeable:

Shortly before the prayer began, council President rJo Winch said people in the audience were free to sit, stand or kneel.

“I thought it was fine,” Winch said of the group’s attendance. “It was not disruptive. It had no effect on the council meeting or the prayer. People are free to exercise their constitutional rights.”

Amazing: In a matter of hours, Winch learned alllllllll about the Constitution…

She still doesn’t get it.

I hope the atheists protest again. But in a way that’s more effective. I don’t know if that means speaking out in protest like they did in Hawaii, or speaking out against the invocation prayer as a concerned citizen at the meeting, or holding up signs about church/state separation outside the meeting.

It’s true a watered-down prayer isn’t the biggest problem in the world right now. But in principle, it’s wrong, and it should stop. That’s why I hope we keep fighting these things where they happen.

Incidentally, this isn’t the first time Hartford has been involved in a controversy involving the invocation prayer. A couple months ago, they had a problem when locals decried a local Islamic imam giving the invocation.

This is such an easy problem to fix: Stop praying publicly and get down to work. That’s what the council members were elected to do in the first place.

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  • venus

    the city council members are paid – right? They are paid to do city council work, not spend even a second on pointless drivel like “prayers” and “moments of silence.”

  • Jonas

    I don’t like the Moment of Silence, as I see it as a slippery slope toward a specific religious prayer. — A general, or non-denominational prayer is further down that slope.

    However, I appreciate that no one was forced to stand, or kneel.

  • It’s great that the protest created initial change in such a short time by moving the council to clearly inform people that they dont have to assume a “prayer posture”. Think about how long it took for some of the original civil rights protests to have an effect. Now it’s time to build on that foundation.

    Perhaps the council would now be open to a presentation by the atheist group regarding the constitutional issue and its obligations? The same presentation could also be used to provide the council with a bit more information about atheists in Hartford (including the fact that they vote!) and could go a long way to resolving the issue.

    Also, if Hartford televises its council meetings (as we do here) it would provide an opportunity for those viewing to become better informed about the legal issues and the atheist community.

    Then, if that doesn’t work, other steps can follow-but it is difficult to make future requests from a group if they’re convinced that you aren’t initially willing to talk.

    Hemant’s comment about avoiding controversy (and open bigotry) by eliminating the prayer would also be a good point to review with them-once a council member realizes how an issue is making the municipality (and by extension him or her) look, they typically get more motivated to address the issue.

  • For atheism to be imposed, there would need to be some kind of statement that there is no god or at least no evidence of gods. To remain silent on the subject is not imposing any statement what-so-ever. People need to be educated in the difference between secularism (not making a religious statement) and making a pro-atheism statement.

    It serves everyone’s interest for the government to be secular.

  • DPSisler

    they should ask to do a pray to the Flying Spagehti Monster….then the Pink Unicorn…..then the Ravernous Bugbeast of Traal…..

  • I’m with DPSisler, demand prayers for Pastafarianism and a bunch of other crazy stuff.

  • “rJo?”

  • “I don’t think that they need to be able to impose their atheism on other people,” Winch said. “What about the other residents that think prayer should happen.

    This logic is impeccable.

    Similarly, I don’t think that they need to be able to impose their not-giving-me-ten-dollah on other people. What about the other residents (like me) that think giving-me-ten-dollah should happen?

  • WishinItWas

    *standing in “left field”*

    I went to college in Hartford…. my car was stolen while I was there…

  • PJB863

    Two places where I’ve attended village board meetings numerous times (I grew up in one, and lived as an adult in the other). Westmont, IL, where I grew up started their board meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance. The other place, Oak Park, IL started the meeting with the Village President calling the meeting to order and had the Village Clerk call the roll, read the minutes from the last meeting, and then proceeded with current business.

    Neither place seemed to suffer from fire raining down from the sky, nor were they inundated by waters from Lake Michigan. Moral depravity was no more a problem than anywhere in the bible belt. They both seemed to have reasonably well-functioning governments.

  • Freemage

    For a more effective protest, during the prayer, the atheists should stand, and remove coats (or light outer shirts), revealing t-shirts printed with a logo–something to the effect of, “I’m paying my taxes for you to work, not pray.” They can even cover the shirts after that point, and then make use of whatever opportunities there are for public comment to make their case.

    It’s non-disruptive, but draws attention–about the best combination, as it becomes tactically difficult for the opposition to try and censor them.

  • “I don’t think that they need to be able to impose their atheism on other people”

    Likewise, you have no need to impose your Christianity on other people…

    I can’t really argue with a moment of silence, as I like to use it to compose my thoughts and get focused. Whatever anyone else might use it for, as long as they’re not disruptive, doesn’t bother me a bit.

  • Rebecca

    Here’s a “prayer” they can use. “OK, everyone, let’s get down to the business of running this town.” And, then start work…

  • Trace

    chicago dyke:

    found this at some site with her bio:

    “rJo, which she prefers to be called, is the shortened version of Rosezina Joyce, transformed to look more like a symbol than to be grammatically correct.”

  • Kamaka

    “Moment of silence” is a barely concealed dodge that still requires the “prayer posture”.

  • Thanks for highlighting our protest. A few notes:

    The protest got a lot of notice. We were in the evening news and in the Hartford Courant. During the public comment time before the meeting I read a statement describing what we were about to do and why. Even before my turn to speak, though, other speakers commented on the protest, which they were aware was about to happen due to the advance publicity.

    I hadn’t been aware of the Hawaiian action until last night, when I heard it mentioned in online commentary on ours.

    The plan is to do this in other Connecticut towns as well. The (midterm) goal is to make the appropriateness of public prayer a matter of public debate throughout the state.

    The statement I read before the council can be found here:

  • mike

    If you pack the room with enough non-theists or just non-christians and have them obviously do nothing during the prayers, it will effectively marginalize the prayer. The little known corollary to “if two or more of you gather in my name, I will be with you” is “if about half of you don’t appear to care at all, then you are less than a man for trying”. Be sure to get a picture of it and turn it into a ‘Prayer Fail’ poster. You could also add an easy way to spot the non-christians by breaking out the: sunglasses, baseball caps, cowboy hats (sleeping cowboy pose), novelty glasses with large nose, etc.

    If you make them look and feel like they are clearly wasting your and their time, they’ll feel like idiots. Just pack that meeting and bring a your Ipods.

  • I refuse to be silent for a moment of silence. Seriously. Was there ever a moment of silence except when some entity wanted to impose prayer but couldn’t? It’s a freaking rather obvious substitute way of forcing prayer.

    At minimum, I will hum through it. Only once has this gotten me in near trouble. And that’s at that State job where I was harrassed when the governor pulled a surprised moment of silence in State offices following 9/11. This patriotic New Yorker was heard loudly reciting the 1st Amendment through the moment. Supervisor started to ream me a new one. I told them I had the right to free speech and fuck off. Ironically, I had just returned from a lunch break filing a complaint with Human Rights for the previous harrassment. When that hit them, complaining about reciting the First Amendment during a moment of silence somehow disappeared.

    Sitting and refusing to participate is rather my decision to pull as an individual if ever faced with the pledge. Prayer I may be tempted to do some out loud hail Satans. Moment of silence I will either recite the 1st Amendment or hum.

    Civil disobedience is what I’ve been encouraged at as an American citizen since grade school. I won’t be stifled in my old age. Screw those who try.

  • Oh, Mike, smirking or out right laughing also works well. I’ve done the laughing at it thing at outdoor events. It always gets nearby people looking at me and at least one or two chuckling along. Of course, I live in New York. Not sure I advise this in the Bible Belt.

  • Richard Wade

    A couple months ago, they had a problem when locals decried a local Islamic imam giving the invocation.

    Encourage local Wiccans, Pagans, Satanists, Rastafarians, Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs, and of course the good Imam to apply for leading the prayer, to express their being a part of the community. Oh, and a secular statement from the atheist group. Make it a zoo. The community bigots will have a fit, and the Council will stop the whole practice.

  • DA

    Donna, I’m also not a fan of moments-of-silence, but I’m not sure it’s always a prayer surrogate. Here in China, which is incredibly secular, a lot of public business involves a moment of silence for recent events, last year it was the Qinghai earthquakes. I also don’t have time for enforced sentiment of any kind, though; I once had a beer chucked at me at a baseball game for not standing during the National Anthem. The guy helpfully added “Go back where you came from, asshole!” How could he tell I was from San Diego?

  • Why not juggle during the prayer?

    Who are these clowns to tell me that I cannot demonstrate my lack of superstition by juggling?

    My juggling is supposed to ward off silly superstitious behavior.

    I haven’t juggled in a while, so I may occasionally lose control of a ball, or two, or three, and have to dash around to retrieve them. This would all be in a much more positive spirit than the antics of those protesting against the American Constitution by praying, such as President Winch.

    Why should their conventional disruptive behavior be any more acceptable than my juggling?

    Government seems to already have more than enough problems. Is there any need to disrupt government meetings, just to sacrifice a Vestal Virgin, to praise Odin, or for some Santerian chicken chopping?

  • Here in the US, that’s what it seems. In any case, it’s a moment of forced respect. Not that I disagree with respecting the victims of 9/11. I’ll just be damned if I’m ordered not only to do so but how to do so by the governor because I happened to work for the State. I was still in the hallway coming back from Human Rights so it wasn’t as loud as it sounds above.

    lol, he might have been wrong. You could just as easily have come from New York.

  • Aaron

    I’m with Richard Wade, as a whole when facing moments of prayer in government we need to work with the other religions to demand they get their fair time in. Christian politicians are big on the ‘we don’t exclude anyone’ statement as long as that anyone is other Christian denominations. As soon as it is Pagans calling on the goddess and the horned one they balk at that and quickly decide to not have prayer at all. If you look, you can find a lot of religions that Christians would find objectionable to leading a prayer at the start of a public meeting, work with them and you should be able to make it so that no more then one in 5 meetings start with a Christian leading the prayer.
    So, while I don’t care for those other religions any more then Christian myth, I will gladly use them to further my ends. The best way to break the Christian majority is to dilute it.

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