May 2018 Church & State Magazine - May 2018

New Jersey City Abolishes Meeting Invocations To Boost Inclusivity

  Liz Hayes

Officials in a southern New Jersey city recently made the effort to ensure their public council meetings are more welcoming by eliminating invocations.

Woodbury, a city of about 10,000 people just across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, in February replaced invocations 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, remarking, “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.”

Woodbury’s removal of invocations was met with mixed reactions. According to the city council’s online meeting minutes from February, several residents and at least one city employee thanked the council for replacing the prayers with a moment of silence.

The Times of Trenton lauded the move in an April 3 editorial.

Observed the paper, “Appearing before local government bodies on such secular matters as variances, sewers, permits, licensing and other business should not require anyone to bow the head or show religious observance in any way … Large populations of atheists, Jews, Muslims, Hindus and others have inadvertently been made to feel like second-class citizens over the years when forced to sit through prayers designed predominantly for Christians. … Count us among the supporters of Woodbury’s new policy. Other communities would be smart to follow its lead.”

On the other hand, Woodbury Coun­cilman Kenneth J. McIlvane is not supportive, according to the Inquirer. “It is sad that a tradition, which has existed for hundreds of years, has been stopped. I am unhappy and disappointed the invocation has ended,” he said. McIlvane, who is Catholic, said during a council meeting that he would use the moment of reflection to say a private prayer.

The Inquirer said about 50 people, mostly from local churches, packed a March 19 meeting of the Human Rights Commission to discuss the change for about two hours. The paper said clergy members spoke on both sides of the issue.

“God is in full control of whether they have it or not,” said the Rev. Norwood Cuff, pastor of Campbell African Methodist Episcopal Church. “I have my own convictions. I’m not going to fight it.”

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