The Separation of Church and State

Public officials must welcome the sacred and the secular

  Rob Boston

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court held that local governments could open their meetings with prayers, even if they were Christian most of the time. But the court also reminded municipalities to respect diversity and not allow the invocations to become occasions to “denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion.”

Americans United, which represented the plaintiffs challenging the prayer practices in Greece, N.Y., disagreed with the ruling in Greece v. Galloway, but we decided to try to make the best of a bad situation. If local governments insisted on having invocations, we asserted, let them occasionally hear from secular speakers. We even drafted a model secular invocation for our supporters to use.

An occasional secular statement

In the main, it has worked out pretty well, and over the years, we’ve heard from supporters who have used our secular invocation or something similar. (You can read about the experiences of AU’s El Paso, Texas, chapter here in the February issue of our Church & State magazine.)

But this only works if everyone is mature and operating from a position of good faith and fairness, and in some communities, that spirit has been hard to conjure up.

Consider Tavares, Fla., where Joseph Richardson, a member of the Central Florida Freethought Community, offered a secular invocation recently before a meeting of the city council – only to be followed at the podium by city employee who then led a second invocation, this one ending “in Jesus’ name.”

Town insists on Christian do-over

Blogger Hemant Mehta pointed out what was going on: City officials grudgingly allowed Richardson to give a secular invocation and then felt compelled to “correct” his statements with a Christian do-over. It was clearly planned ahead of time, and, as Mehta noted, this isn’t the first time something like this has happened in Florida.

It’s not as if religious speakers are being crowded out in Florida because there are so many secular invocations. Most of the opening statements remain religious. All the officials have to do is listen to an affirming, positive, non-religious statement a few times a year. And some simply can’t deal.

The Supreme Court warned that invocation policies shouldn’t become occasions to denigrate other belief systems. That’s clearly happening in several Florida communities. It shouldn’t be tolerated.

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