Last December, I posted about a change in leadership in Waverly, Iowa. Dean Soash had just won the race for mayor as a write-in candidate against incumbent Charles D. Infelt.
Why was that significant? Because Infelt routinely pushed for invocations at city council meetings.
When atheist activist Justin Scott finally spoke out against the practice last April, Infelt defended the prayers by saying they were inclusive. After all, they were non-denominational (as opposed to strictly Christian). At one point, he even said atheists could “say your own quiet little, whatever reflection you’d like” and that atheists should “be tolerant of everyone who is” religious. (I doubt he would have the same reaction if an atheist delivered an invocation every single week.)
Justin persisted, though.
He kept advocating for a policy change… and it worked! The invocations were eventually opened to people of any faith and no faith… but Infelt had control over who spoke. After inviting a Muslim (i.e. a token non-Christian) to deliver an opening prayer, it was back to Christian Christian Christian every week.
So when Soash won the race, Justin was hoping the invocation policy would change. The mayor-elect even said to him they could work together to find a policy that worked for everybody.
Justin’s activism appears to have paid off. At last night’s city council meeting, Soash announced the practice of invocations would come to an end for good. In a statement to KWAY radio, Soash explained why this decision was made:
I actually made a phone call to Justin Scott, who was the atheist that appeared at council meetings periodically during 2017, and we had a nice long conversation. Basically, he wanted to understand where the city was coming from, and I wanted to know what his objectives were, and he’s content — he was very comfortable after we talked — and said everything is cool.
In fact, it’s an even better story when you find out what Soash did at first. Amie Steffen of The Courier reports that Soash actually reached out to Justin to invite him to deliver the first invocation of his tenure… and that’s when they decided to end the prayers altogether.
According to both men, Soash called Scott on the phone a few days after Soash won the mayoral runoff election, and asked Scott if he would want to give the first invocation of Soash’s tenure as mayor. Scott instead persuaded Soash to drop invocations entirely.
“There were some other people — some of the council people would also like to do away with prayer at the council meeting, so it was an easy decision to make,” Soash said, declining to name those council members.
“It was just a really cordial phone call,” Scott said. “He said, ‘What are the pros, what are the cons?’ We just decided it was the best way forward for all parties. Not having prayer is the only way to ensure a totally inclusive council.”
Justin’s right about that. It’s perfectly legal not to have invocations — and it’s a lot less messy when you don’t have to sort through every religious and non-religious leader in the community who wants to deliver a prayer just to make sure everyone gets the opportunity.
This isn’t church. This is city business. Why would a city council invite controversy by bothering with the invocations at all? With Soash at the helm, Waverly officials will be able to do the work they were elected to do instead of wade into religious debate every week. It’s best for everybody — and Christians who want to pray can still do it on their own. Just like always.
This isn’t persecution. This is just a wise decision from a mayor whose goal is to work for the people instead of using his platform to promote Christianity.
Justin told me he was thrilled with the new mayor’s decision:
I am beyond pleased as this is now the second city in Iowa to end the practice of prayer in response to my activism (Waukon was first) and hopefully this begins a trend of other cities doing the same. These cities have nothing to lose by dropping prayer as it ultimately ends up ensuring a completely inclusive experience for all that attend their council meetings.
I want to applaud Mayor Soash for his bold leadership on the issue of prayer and for his willingness to show a true respect for diversity and inclusiveness in the City of Waverly.
(Portions of this article were published earlier)