November 2018 Church & State - November 2018

Historic Invocation: For The First Time Ever, A San Antonio City Council Meeting Began With A Secular Reflection – And Americans United Activists Led The Way

  Rob Boston

History was made in San Antonio in September when the city council opened its deliberations with something members hadn’t heard before: a secular invocation.

City officials have long been opening meetings with religious invocations, often Christian, but they had never heard a secular reflection before – so Americans United decided to change that.

Activists in the San Antonio Chapter of Americans United approached officials and offered to add a little more diversity to the community’s invocations. The efforts bore fruit when councilmembers decided to accept the chapter’s offer.

During the meeting, Councilwoman Ana Sandoval reminded attendees that the council had heard invocations from religious leaders of various faiths but hadn’t heard from anyone representing the non-belief community. As AU’s chapter noted, non-believers are part of the city’s fabric as well, so it’s only fitting that they be included.

At that point, Sandoval introduced Nick Lee, a member of the board of directors of the local AU chapter. Lee, who is also the past president of the Freethinkers Association of Central Texas and past President of the Atheist Alliance International, walked to the podium and offered the invocation that Church & State is reprinting below.

AU member Nick Lee giving San Antonio invocation

(Photo: Nick Lee, a member of the board of directors of the Americans United San Antonio Chapter, offers the first-ever secular invocation to the San Antonio Council in September 2018.)

As Eric Lane, president of the AU San Antonio Chapter, noted in a message to Americans United’s national office, “For the first time in the history of the city, a Secular Humanist gave the invoca­tion. The oceans did not part. No one was smitten. The sun set and rose again.”

Added Lane, “Our chapter is grateful to Councilwoman Ana Sandoval for inviting Nick Lee to give the invocation and to Nick for his courage and wisdom.  We also want to thank the religious leaders both in attendance and there in spirit for their solidarity and support of the right of every American to follow the dictates of their conscience based on the guarantees in the first clause of the First Amendment. And we want to thank all of you who understand and support the foundation of our freedoms, the separation of church and state.”

Lane said it was especially fitting that Lee gave the invocation in Sep­tember, when the city, which is known for its diversity and multi-ethnic flair, was celebrating its 300th anniversary.

For the first time in the history of the city, a Secular Humanist gave the invoca­tion. The oceans did not part. No one was smitten. The sun set and rose again.

~Eric Lane, AU San Antonio Chapter president

The event marks the second time an Americans United chapter has brought more inclusivity to a Texas community. In 2014, David Marcus of Join Us For Justice, AU’s El Paso Chapter, delivered a secular invocation before a meeting of that community’s council. (Marcus and other AU activists later persuaded commissioners in surrounding El Paso County to drop official invocations altogether.)

But despite the success in El Paso, San Antonio and other communities, the issue of invocations before meetings of legislative bodies continues to roil some states and local jurisdictions. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 ruled in Greece v. Galloway that communities may open their deliberations with prayers and invocations even if they are sectarian in nature. But the court went on to say that government bodies should strive for diversity.

Since then, Americans United has been working to ensure that units of government be as inclusive as possible. To AU, that doesn’t just mean that representatives from a variety of religious groups are invited to give invocations, but that men and women from secular communities are included, too.

This hasn’t been a problem in many places; but in some parts of the country, lawmakers have insisted that invocations must be religious in nature and have taken steps to exclude humanists and atheists.

Americans United is challenging some of those discriminatory policies in court.  AU recently won a case in Pennsylvania, challenging that state’s House of Representatives’ policy requiring that any guest who wants to deliver an invocation must be  “a member of a regularly established church or religious organization” – a policy that effectively excludes non-believers. AU is also challenging a similar policy in Brevard County, Fla. (See “Expansive Invocations,” October 2018 Church & State.)

In Americans United’s view, it would be best if government bodies refrained from sponsoring prayer before meetings. But if invocations are going to be offered, they should include a range of thought that represents the entire community – including those who hold no religious beliefs.

Nick Lee’s invocation to the San Antonio City Council, offered Sept. 13, 2018:

Mayor, Council Members: This morning I do not ask you to bow your heads in prayer. Rather, I draw your attention to the citizens who are gathered here today to do business with the city. They come from different economic circumstances and ethnic backgrounds. Yet, they all hope to receive from you an equitable hearing of their concerns.

And beyond this room, I ask you to remember all one-and-a-half million people whom you are collectively pledged to serve. Consider the diversity of cultures, economic interests and religious backgrounds which are represented in this community. In terms of religion, this includes not only the many varieties of Christians, but also Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists, and others. At this point, I draw your attention to the religious leaders who are gathered here this morning in support of this secular invocation.

These citizens of San Antonio look to each of you to apply wisdom, integrity, and rational thinking to the affairs of the city, and to treat all fairly and without favor. As a Secular Humanist, I believe that we have the power within ourselves to solve life’s problems and challenges through logic, reason, compassion, and compromise. As our elected representatives, we trust your decisions today will be based on the common good and with an eye to their impact on all citizens and future generations.

On behalf of the many atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and secular humanists who live and work in this community and contribute to its prosperity, I thank you for this opportunity to present what I believe to be the first Secular Invocation in the 300-year history of the City of San Antonio. I hope it will not be the last.

Thank you.

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