Back in March, atheist Ali Blair delivered an invocation during a meeting of the Berea City Council in Kentucky. You can read it for yourself. There was nothing remotely controversial about it, unless you think asking people to reflect on their own privilege is a bad thing. And yet the public reaction to her “prayer” suggested she did something divisive.
Because she didn’t invoke God in her speech, some people were furious. Now the city council is trying to make sure Blair and other atheists — and Jews and Muslims and all other non-Christians — have no voice during the invocations whatsoever.
According to a draft of a municipal order that will be proposed (and possible voted on) at tonight’s meeting, the council is preparing to hire a Baptist preacher — with taxpayer money — to deliver all future invocations.
1. In order to solemnize proceedings of the City Council of Berea, Kentucky, it is the policy of the Council to allow for an invocation or prayer to be offered before its meetings for the benefit of the Council.
2. The invocation or prayer shall be offered by the council chaplain appointed in Paragraph 4, below.
3. In the event that the council chaplain is unavailable, a member of the Council may deliver the invocation. The designated Council member shall deliver the prayer or invocation in his or her capacity as a private citizen, and according to the dictates of his or her own conscience.
4. Rev. Kevin Slemp is hereby appointed the council chaplain.
5. The council chaplain shall be compensated in the amount of $25.00 per meeting for his or her services.
6. In addition to the foregoing, after the meeting of the Council is called to order, and any invocation or prayer is offered, shall recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag.
7. This policy is not intended, and shall not be implemented or construed in any way, to affiliate the Council with, nor express the Council’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination.
Item #7 may be the funniest one on the list: This Council doesn’t favor any religion! Oh, and by the way, the chaplain just happens to be Baptist. Totally a coincidence, we swear! Don’t read anything into it!
Kevin Slemp, by the way, is the Senior Pastor of Berea Baptist Church, one of the largest churches in the area.
Let’s be very clear about what this plan would do: It would allow a government-appointed religious leader to receive taxpayer money to preach Christianity at every meeting. This isn’t some invocation grey area — it undoubtedly crosses the line into an illegal promotion of religion, and no disclaimer to the contrary changes that. The fact that he’s getting paid is irrelevant; it’s just adding insult to injury. This would be a problem even if the position didn’t come with a salary.
The only reason we know about this proposal at all, since it’s not yet public, is because one of the eight council members, Emily LaDouceur, who was elected last November, shared it on Facebook when she received a copy of it late last week. She’s appalled by the idea.
In her post, she called the proposal “ridiculous” and laid out the reasons why:
1. Separation of church and state. Period.
2. We shouldn’t even have invocations as part of our council meetings, but my relative neutrality on the issue was due to the fact that at the end of the day (and after the Invocation Committee was presented with a Supreme Court decision — “Town of Greece vs Galloway” — that rendered the religious restrictions contained in the original municipal order overruled), any person of any religion or non-religion could give the invocation. Hence, an Atheist gave an invocation this year and we apparently had a Muslim invocation in the past as well.
3. This order would take 600 of your tax dollars a year, possibly more, and give it to one Christian Baptist pastor who would give all invocations (Kevin Slemp, who I have no issues with as an individual…in fact, he baptized me many moons ago). This, by all accounts, establishes a religion for our city and affiliates us with First Baptist Church and their doctrine, and by simply stating that it doesn’t affiliate us in the order, doesn’t make it true. And to be clear, I wouldn’t approve of one person giving every invocation even if that person was one of the pastors of my own church.
4. Are we to expect that a Christian pastor alone will render invocations that represent the diversity of faiths found in Berea? I think it’s reasonable to expect that we will have exclusively Christian invocations and that does not represent all Bereans. There was no vetting process that I am aware of and I sit on the personnel committee, which interviews potential city employees.
Let’s be clear about what this is really about. This is the religious right on our council responding to the fact that since an atheist gave the invocation, we’ve received requests from people of other faiths/non-faiths to give the invocation, including a Satanist. Those requests have not been honored to date by the Invocation Committee – members’ names that are still on the books: Jim Davis, Cora Jane Wilson, and Bruce Fraley.
They will likely say this is simply to make the invocation process more efficient, a process that is not even necessary to conduct the business of the city, by the way. There is nothing preventing people who wish to pray over the council from doing so. They can do it in the foyer, at their seat, as the meeting is held, etc, as long as it is not disruptive. Invocations are not required or needed. Making it a formal requirement is forcing people who may not practice the same faith to participate in a religious practice not prescribed by the laws of our land.
This order is intended to discriminate against and exclude faiths that are not a certain type of Christian in our council chambers. It is religious zealotry, bigotry, and bias made formal through municipal order. This is divisive and I question even the legality of it.
She’s right to question the legality of it. It’s absolutely illegal. It effectively prohibits non-Christians from giving an invocation unless the Baptist chaplain is sick, AND a non-Christian sits on the council, AND that council member gets to be the substitute invocation giver for the day. All of that violates the principles set forth in Greece v. Galloway.
Mark my words: As soon as this passes, there will be a lawsuit, and the city will lose. Taxpayers will be on the hook for the plaintiffs’ legal costs even if some Christian group offers to represent the city for free. This is a disaster waiting to happen — and apparently, the council members don’t care because they’re eager to have the government promote a specific brand of Christianity. They could simply say yes to anyone who requests to give one or get rid of invocations altogether. Instead, they’re handing the keys to a Baptist preacher while unconvincingly pretending they’re not endorsing Christianity.
Here’s a bit of good news: LaDouceur told me she plans to make a motion to just table the discussion while the council looks into the legal ramifications of this idea. That has the added benefit of allowing the majority of council members to save face by just delaying the vote.
But that motion would still need to get a majority vote. It’s entirely possible the council votes down her motion, then votes in support of the chaplain proposal.
One other bit of good news: LaDouceur requested to fill an open seat on the invocation committee — which discusses and puts forth ideas about how to handle invocations — and the mayor approved that request. That means, from now on, she’ll have a seat at the table when these issues are talked about among city leaders. (Hallelujah. There will be at least one voice of reason in the mix.)
Mae Suramek, a local business leader, made a strong case against this proposal in an opinion piece for the Lexington Herald-Leader (behind a paywall):
I know one thing for sure — if a government that is supposed to represent us all forces an entire room of people from diverse faith backgrounds to silently participate in prayer from one particular religion, this does nothing to foster that communal, reflective, collaborative tone that I believe is, or at least should be, the intended outcome here. In fact it does just the opposite. It isolates, divides, polarizes, and makes some feel left out and others feel less valued…
Ali Blair, the atheist whose invocation seems to have spurred this response, told me last night that she wasn’t surprised by the overreaction. She added that the pastor in question is hardly an inclusive figure:
I think it is a very predictable response by this council majority, who are emboldened by Trump’s hateful rhetoric and have used this platform to preach and to “punish” those with minority religious beliefs.
… They have chosen a clergy member who has make public statements comparing same sex marriage to incest and bestiality to solemnize and guide their business meetings, for goodness sakes. This move is meant to send a clear message to those in the community who do not share their religious beliefs. They are attempting to exert power and privilege without truly considering the impact of this divisive policy within the community. This order causes great concern from residents, religious and not.
I will always advocate for abolishing the policy altogether — separation of church and state. If these elected officials were true leaders and cared for the well-being of this community like they say, they would propose a moment of silent reflection instead. [It’s the] most inclusive and respectful approach.
For now, the best way to push back is for sensible people to show up early for the 6:30 p.m. meeting tonight and request to speak during the public comments portion of the evening. Let the council know what a huge mistake they’d be making.
Apparently, citizens need help to talk the other council members out of shooting themselves in the foot.
(Image via Shutterstock. Thanks to Brian for the link)