Do you want proof that speaking up at city council meetings makes a difference?
Earlier this month, atheist activist Justin Scott of the Eastern Iowa Atheists made a public comment during a meeting of the Waverly (Iowa) City Council. He was frustrated that Mayor Charles D. Infelt always gave religious invocations at the beginning of meetings and no non-Christians or atheists had the opportunity to do the same. Besides just being flat-out illegal, it excluded a sizable segment of the community.
Infelt responded at the time that he offered totally inclusive “theistic” prayers that applied to everyone. And if atheists didn’t like it, they could “say [their] own quiet little, whatever, reflection you’d like.” He also told Justin that atheists should “be tolerant of everyone who is” religious, as if asking for equal treatment was a grave offense to people of faith.
When Justin directly asked a council member if an atheist from Waverly could ever deliver a secular invocation, all you hear in that video is a muttered remark, “We’ll cross that bridge later.”
The entire exchange made the council members and Mayor look completely ignorant. They had no idea that Justin had the law on his side, and they were fooling themselves if they thought a religious prayer was truly inclusive of everybody.
Infelt clearly didn’t appreciate the media coverage, because he contacted The Courier, a local newspaper, over the weekend to clarify his stance on the issue. Guess what? Atheists are now welcome to deliver invocations.
In a phone conversation Saturday, Infelt began by saying he still felt his prayer was open to all because he’s “never invoked Christ’s name” and Scott “can just meditate. … He can just appreciate what’s being said without having a theistic anchor to it.”
But later in the conversation he seemed to revise his stance, saying Scott or another atheist from Waverly would perhaps be able to deliver an invocation.
“In the opening, when we have the public comments, I was thinking he would be sure welcome to do it at that time,” Infelt said, before noting it might be possible “we could do it during a regular invocation.”
He literally went from promoting something illegal to following the law in the span of a single phone conversation.
Justin wasn’t entirely satisfied by the response because he wants Infelt to issue an apology acknowledging he was wrong to say what he said:
Scott said Saturday he was “pleased to hear of his change of heart,” but he still wanted Infelt to apologize publicly for comments that atheists should “essentially sit back and be quiet during mayor-led Christian prayers.”
“Does he understand how offensive it was and how it perpetuated bigotry against atheists by demanding that atheists deliver their statements only during the public comment section?” Scott asked.
It’s up to Infelt where this story goes. Will he change the council’s invocation policy to allow citizens to deliver them, opening the door to atheist speakers, or will they do away with meeting prayers altogether and just get down to work instead of wasting everybody’s time?
We wouldn’t be talking about any of this, however, unless Justin spoke up at that meeting, so kudos to him and let’s hope other atheists in his situation have the courage to say something to their city councils.