It Pays To Complain: New mayor ends invocation at city meetings

By Justin Scott

Justin Scott

On the morning of Jan. 8, exactly 280 days after I first complained, the new mayor of Waverly, Iowa, announced that there would no longer be controversial and divisive prayer at council meetings.

This came after the city experienced two consecutive years of predominantly Christian prayers led by Mayor Charles Infelt, a former long-time pastor, who violated the Lemon test and Establishment Clause by changing the previous prayer process with no secular purpose. (The previous practice included the mayor inviting various religious leaders to the council chambers to offer a prayer.)

I first challenged Infelt to provide a more inclusive prayer practice on the night of April 3, 2017. It was met with hostility by the mayor. At one point, I was told that if atheists don’t like his religious invocations, they should just “be tolerant” of his “theistic” prayers. I refused to be fazed or  back down.

Month after month, I’d speak up during public comments and demand a change in the prayer practice. Some council members joined in verbalizing their discomfort with prayer before meetings, but never pushed the mayor to change the process. Eventually, I was able to get the mayor to implement a formalized prayer policy, but only after I was quoted in the media as saying the whole prayer practice reeked of “Christian arrogance and Christian privilege.”

Believe it or not, Infelt did end up allowing a non-Christian to deliver an invocation, inviting a Muslim college student to deliver an Islamic prayer to open the first June 2017 meeting. Unfortunately, the next five meetings in a row all featured Christian prayers.

This all came to an end in December 2017, when a runoff election was held between Infelt and Dean Soash, thanks to a very small margin of victory by Infelt in the November 2018 election. To the surprise of many in Waverly, Soash won in a landslide, winning outright in all of Waverly’s five wards, as well as the absentee ballot total.

A few weeks after the election, Soash reached out to me and we agreed the best and only way forward for the city was without prayer.

Despite the fact that I never got the chance to deliver an invocation and despite the fact that it wasn’t  Infelt ending the prayer practice that he wrongly implemented, I am still overjoyed with the result, as it’s more than I was initially asking for. To know that I played a part in getting another city in Iowa to ditch a practice that left atheist and nonreligious citizens feeling unwelcome and like second-class citizens in their own city is very rewarding. It truly does pay to complain.

I want to thank Mayor Soash for sticking to his word of reaching out to me after being sworn in as the new mayor, listening to my concerns and taking bold action by discontinuing prayer. I also want to thank all of the support I received from citizens of Waverly — both atheist and religious — as well as the ongoing support from FFRF.

Justin Scott is an FFRF member from Iowa.