FFRF Lifetime Member Linda Stephens gave the following talk in Rochester, N.Y., at an event sponsored by the Rochester Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.
Something unprecedented happened in March at the Berea City Council meeting in Kentucky: An atheist delivered an invocation. In January, something similar happened at the Lubbock City Council meeting in Texas. And, a few months earlier, at the San Antonio City Council meeting, the same thing happened: An atheist delivered the invocation.
These are not isolated instances. Local and state governments all across the country, which begin their public meetings with prayers, are now besieged with requests to deliver invocations by nonreligious people. Such invocations have been delivered at city or town council meetings or at state legislature meetings in Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Iowa, Maine, Missouri, Oklahoma, Washington, Colorado, Ohio, Tennessee, Illinois and in New York state, most notably in the town of Greece, N.Y. And all of this unusual activity has come about since 2014. Why is that?
It all has to do with a U.S. Supreme Court decision that came down that year. The case was called Town of Greece vs. Galloway & Stephens. In that case, Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and I, an atheist, tried to get the town of Greece to stop beginning its town board meetings with prayers. At the time, it was the practice of the town supervisor to invite only local Christian clergy to deliver these prayers.
The Supreme Court ruled against Susan and me in a split decision, with the five conservative justices all siding with the town. In its decision, the court said that it was not a violation of the First Amendment to start off government meetings with prayers, even explicitly Christian ones. It was, after all, a tradition in this country. Never mind that lots of other traditions in this country have been given the heave-ho long ago. Remember slavery?
Be that as it may, the court did redeem itself in one way. In its decision, the court said that the government must “maintain . . . a policy of nondiscrimination” when it comes to choosing people to deliver these invocations.
This court case generated a huge amount of publicity. There were articles about it in The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times and a host of other newspapers. A friend of mine even sent me a clipping about the case from her hometown newspaper in Ormond Beach, Fla. And there was other media coverage. Susan and I were interviewed on CBS, NBC and numerous other TV stations, local and national. I was even interviewed by a reporter calling from Bogota, Columbia. Susan was interviewed by the BBC.
So, I suspect that is one reason that so many nonreligious people started thinking that maybe it was time for them to start giving invocations. All of this publicity made them aware of what was going on in their local and state governments with regard to this issue.
The other thing that happened right after the 2014 Supreme Court decision came down was that a number of secular organizations started prodding their members to get involved in this issue. The Freedom from Religion Foundation initiated an annual contest encouraging members to deliver secular invocations before their local government meetings and awarded prizes for the best ones. [See accompanying page.]
At the same time, Americans United for Separation of Church and State started a campaign called “Operation Inclusion,” which encouraged people who, up to this point, had not participated in delivering such invocations to do just that. Americans United provided instruction about how to go about delivering a secular invocation. The American Humanist Association launched a program to train and encourage people to deliver secular invocations. All of these initiatives have contributed to a groundswell of enthusiasm among nonreligious folk to go knocking on the doors of their local governments.
Now, let me toot my own horn. The day the Town of Greece case was argued at the Supreme Court, Susan and I and our lawyers stood outside the courthouse as reporters swarmed around us. When it was my turn to speak, I said that I thought it was time that atheists and other secularists should follow the lead of the gay community and start coming out of the closet. I like to think that some nonreligious people who saw me that day on TV took my message to heart and decided to act.
So, how has all of this activity on the part of nonreligious people been working out? Well, for many, it’s worked out just great. It’s been “springtime for atheists,” as one writer described it.
Many government officials around the country have looked at that Supreme Court decision and decided that they were obligated by law to allow nonreligious people and other non-Christians to deliver invocations at their meetings.
Other government officials, however, have decided they don’t want nonreligious people or non-Christians giving invocations at their government meetings, so they’ve eliminated the practice altogether. Some have opted for a moment of silence instead.
Other government officials have eliminated the prayers before their meetings simply because they decided it was the right thing to do. One example where that happened is at the Waverly, Iowa, City Council.
After atheist activist Hemant Mehta on March 12 delivered an atheist invocation at the DuPage County Board in Illinois [see accompanying page], board members decided to reevaluate their prayer practice. [The board subsequently voted 11-6 in favor of continuing the invocations.]
Finally, there are the government officials who have put their foot down and decided no way were they ever going to let a nonreligious person deliver an invocation at their government meetings. A number of these cases have ended up in court. Dan Barker, the co-president of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, for example, is currently suing the U.S. House of Representatives and the Catholic chaplain who oversees the prayer program, because they won’t let him deliver an invocation. That case is tied up in the courts. [See Page 1.] Similarly, there is a case in Brevard County where the county commission won’t let nonreligious people deliver invocations. That case is also being litigated. And just recently, the county commissioners in Rowan County, N.C., lost a lawsuit about this issue and they now have to pay the ACLU $285,000.
There’s also been a lot of litigation going on about government prayers in Alaska. Recently, government officials in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly decided they’d spent enough money on this issue. They now have a come-one, come-all policy. So, this year, as I understand, an atheist is going to deliver an invocation, as well as a Baha’i, a Wiccan and a Pastafarian (which is a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).
So, should governments even have prayers before their meetings? No, of course not. Why? Because we’re a diverse country whose people have many different beliefs, and our government is supposed to be representing all of us, not just the Christian segment. Contrary to what some people in this country believe, we are not a Christian nation.
The Town of Greece Supreme Court decision was wrongly decided by five conservative justices. Justice Elena Kagan was one who dissented in that case. She had this to say in her dissent: “A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth) — each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.” The town of Greece’s prayer practices, she added, “violate that norm of religious equality.”
One more thing I’d like to add: There has been a great deal written about this subject since the 2014 Town of Greece decision. To keep track of some of this information, I started a Facebook page titled “After Town of Greece.” So, if you want to learn more about this subject, you should check out that Facebook page (and “Like” it). In addition to the written articles, you’ll find many videos of invocations given across the country by nonreligious folk. And lastly, I will mention that two atheists will be delivering invocations at Greece Town Board meetings this year: I will be representing the Atheist Community of Rochester; and Carol Hope will be representing the Rochester Chapter of the American Humanists.
Progress can be slow, but when it happens, it’s nice!