People around the country striving to make their public meeting rooms more welcoming to believers and non-believers alike often have had to turn to the courts to enforce inclusion and diversity. But officials in one New Jersey community made the effort to ensure they welcome everyone.
Woodbury, a city of about 10,000 people just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, in the last month eliminated invocations from its city council meetings and replaced them with a quiet “moment of reflection,” during which the people in attendance are asked to “quietly reflect upon any ideals, thoughts, or prayers they choose.”
The move was suggested by the city’s Human Rights Commission, a seven-member body formed at the beginning of the year to review city policies “to eliminate discrimination and further the education of the public on issues of diversity and inclusion.”
Tony Duran, the commission’s president, told the news website NJ.com that the change was intended “to bring the community together.” Duran said the commission “believes the moment of quiet reflection does that and is intended to make everyone feel part of the process. The people who’ve historically felt uncomfortable or excluded because of the invocation can now participate in the process without those feelings. And those who would like to pray still have that moment of quiet reflection to do so.”
Woodbury Mayor Jessica Floyd drove home the purpose of government meetings: “Council meetings are open to the public to conduct city business. To be clear, no one comes to council meetings for an invocation; they are coming to discuss the everyday affairs of the city.”
Kudos to Woodbury officials for recognizing that public spaces should be welcoming to all and that invocations can feel exclusionary to people who have different beliefs. Just a few months ago, El Paso County Commissioners in Texas opted not to begin their meetings with invocations after hearing from members of Americans United’s local chapter about why the invocations could be divisive.
Public meetings are vital government functions that should welcome all citizens to attend and participate. Invocations – especially those that only represent a majority faith and exclude religious minorities and non-believers from participating – can send the exact opposite message.
Sadly, not all public officials are as welcoming. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether to review two cases – Lund v. Rowan County in North Carolina and Bormuth v. County of Jackson in Michigan – that involve county commissioners who deliver prayers that are exclusively Christian prior to their meetings. Americans United filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both cases and AU Legal Director Richard B. Katskee argued in support of Jackson County resident Peter Bormuth before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last year.
Additionally, Americans United represents citizens who are seeking to make invocations more inclusive in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and during the meetings of the County Commission in Brevard County, Fla. AU has filed lawsuits since these legislative bodies won’t permit non-theistic invocations that solemnize the meetings while invoking American ideals like justice, community and morality instead of calling on God or a theistic higher power.
Public meetings are vital government functions that should welcome all citizens to attend and participate. Invocations – especially those that only represent a majority faith and exclude religious minorities and non-believers from participating – can send the exact opposite message. Hopefully more communities follow in the footsteps of Woodbury, N.J., and El Paso County, Texas, and ensure their meetings are welcoming to all.