Back in January, American Atheists’ Indiana Assistant Director Jama Sullivan asked the city of Connersville if she could deliver an invocation to open up a city council meeting.
The new mayor knew Christians traditionally offered prayers, but since there was no actual written policy mandating that, he directed her to the Fayette County Ministerial Association which handled those invocations. (How’s that for a red flag?)
Over the course of several emails with that group’s leader, she was told that speakers had to offer a biblical prayer. Once they found out she was affiliated with American Atheists, the conversations were effectively over.
The mayor, seemingly aware of the problem, put a pause on all invocations until a formal policy could be written.
Here’s the problematic language:
The City Council and Board of Public Works, in relation to the invocation, invites and welcomes the religious leaders of any and all local religions, including but not limiting to ministers, priests, chaplains, rabbis, deacons, clerics, imams, elders, and the like (hereinafter Invocation Speakers”) to participate in providing invocations for the City Council and Board of Public Works. The following shall apply as the City’ s policy when it comes to the invocation.
The invocation shall be voluntarily delivered by an eligible member of the clergy or religious leader within Fayette County. To ensure that such person is selected from among a wide pool of religious leaders in the community, on a rotating basis, the Invocation Speaker will be selected according to the procedure noted in Section VI below.
So not only are invocations limited to religious leaders (excluding non-religious ones), even those leaders are culled from resources like the phone book and newspaper, which means smaller congregations and minority religions may be left out of the process entirely.
Sullivan warned them against adopting this plan before they voted on it. You can hear her below at the 5:00 mark of the recent city council meeting. She even offers an example of the invocation she would deliver — one that’s non-controversial and uplifting.
They ignored her. They adopted the policy anyway. It’s an awful decision regarding a tradition they don’t even need. American Atheists says it’s downright illegal:
“Precisely because Connersville’s new invocation policy is discriminatory, it is also unconstitutional,” explained Geoffrey Blackwell, American Atheists’ litigation counsel. “The Supreme Court has been clear.”
In Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), the Supreme Court ruled that volunteer chaplains could open each legislative session in Greece, NY, with a prayer because “the town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”
“I know from my own fundamentalist past that some people are driven by ignorance and fear of nonreligious people — and the idea that our very presence is an attack on their religious beliefs. It isn’t,” said Sullivan. “By just participating in the invocation process, I can change hearts and minds about atheists. However, the Connersville government keeps proving it’s more interested in discrimination than inclusivity. It’s unfortunate.”
It doesn’t matter if the policy says participation is optional. The four pages of caveats are meaningless since the very premise is flawed. Exclusion is still at the heart of the invocation policy.
Sullivan told me yesterday that she would still love for the city to amend its new policy to be more inclusive, but if they refuse to do that, a lawsuit isn’t out of the question.
If that lawsuit is filed, the city will lose.
(Image via Shutterstock)