November 2014 Church & State | People & Events

An atheist recently offered a secular invocation before the Huntsville, Ala., city council, making him the first to deliver a non-theistic message prior to a council meeting.

In September, North Alabama Free Thought Association member Kelly McCauley made remarks that emphasized secular themes.

“Let doubt and skepticism and inquiry be on our lookout when caution is the appropriate course,” he said. “But also let innovation and boldness take point when opportunities for excellence appear on our horizon.”

A Huntsville-based group called the Interfaith Mission Service (IMS) chooses prayer givers for the council meetings. IMS Executive Director Jeannie Robison said her organization makes an effort to include perspectives from a diverse community.

“The city council wants an invocation as a way to set their intention to work for the greater good,” she told the Huntsville Times. “Huntsville is a very diverse city, and while Christianity is by far the largest, there are many other faith traditions, and the city council wanted to let the voices of other faith and thought traditions be heard.”

It seems Huntsville is trying to embrace that spirit of diversity, but not without a bit of controversy. In June, a Wiccan high priest who had delivered an invocation in January was set to do so again. But public outcry led his scheduled appearance to be rescinded, prompting a letter from Americans United and others who asked that Huntsville keep government meetings free of bias.

IMS recently announced that the Wiccan, Blake Kirk, will offer an invocation before a Nov. 6 meeting, adding that he never should have been barred from speaking before the June meeting.

Mark Russell, president of the city council, told WAFF-TV in Huntsville that he does not take issue with non-Christians offering pre-meeting pray­ers.

In other news regarding legislative prayer:

  • Some officials with the Escambia County, Fla., School Board clearly have a problem with non-Christian viewpoints based on their behavior at a recent meeting. In September, David Suhor, who calls himself an “Agnostic Pagan Pantheist,” was finally allowed to give a pre-meeting invocation before the board after initially having his request denied because some board members believed his message might be offensive to some people.

But that didn’t mean the board was ready to hear his message. As Suhor approached the podium, Commissioner Wilson Robertson walked out. Robertson told WEAR-TV in Pensacola, “People may not realize it, but when we invite someone, a minister, to pray, they are praying for the county commissioners for us to make wise decisions, and I’m just not going to have a Pagan or satanic minister pray for me.” 

Blogger Hemant Mehta of “The Friendly Atheist” reported that another board member had threatened to walk out of the meeting and criticized Suhor on his personal website.

“I mean, should the majority of persons in attendance at one of our meetings really have to listen to a satanic verse? What if a ‘Witch Doctor’ comes to the podium with a full-on costume, chicken-feet, a voodoo doll and other associated over-the-top regalia? It could easily get out of hand…,” Jeff Bergosh wrote.

Suhor said he just wants to end government-backed religious discrimination.

“I think they should not be offering a prayer or sponsoring a prayer of any particular religion,” he told WEAR. “Instead I think they should have a more exclusive moment of silence which allows anyone to pray according to their own conscience.”


  • In South Carolina, the Pickens County School Board recently approved a prayer policy that would once again allow invocations given in the name of Jesus Christ before meetings.

For the past year, school board meetings opened with non-sectarian prayers delivered by trustees, in place of a policy that had allowed for sectarian messages, the Greenville Times reported. But the board gave initial approval to a policy that would allow members of religious groups to give a prayer “according to the dictates of (their) own conscience.”

“I personally believe when a person says a prayer to Jesus, Jesus hears the prayer, bestows a blessing on the meeting,” board Chairman Alex Saitta told the Times. “I think adding blessings like that and similar to that by whomever gives it, is positive.”

Saitta added that non-Christians would be allowed to offer prayers, too.

The Times reported that the new policy does not require anyone to participate in the invocation, which is made “for the benefit of the board.” Invitations will be mailed to congregations who are on a list of religious groups located in Pickens County. The list will be updated each year. Invitees will be able to request two possible dates to offer an invocation, though the same person will not be allowed to offer a prayer more than once per year.