Prayers at Public Meetings Are Not About Religious Freedom
If you live in the United States, you live in a country that has great respect for freedom of religion. At least ostensibly. But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to find out that not everyone has any respect for religious views that differ from theirs.
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Town of Greece, NY v. Galloway. The decision, to the chagrin of believers of the separation of church and state, basically said that noncoercive sectarian prayer is perfectly fine at public government meetings. It was a blow to secular government, and we’re seeing the effects sooner than I expected.
Some people, you see, seem to think this decision gives them carte blanche to enforce a particular religious tradition on everyone else. That’s the only conclusion I could come to when I heard that the Chesterfield County, Va., Board of Supervisors decided to only allow clergy that came from a Judeo-Christian tradition to say the before meeting prayer.
This isn’t one of those wishy-washy cases either, where there just were no other clergy around. This time, it was active refusal, and their reasoning was explicit. The board had an invocation list, which is just an officially sanctioned list of clergy they can call upon to say a prayer. A Wiccan tried to get on the invocation list, and — surprise! – they were not allowed because they are “neo-pagan and [invoke] polytheistic, pre-Christian deities,” and thus do not fall within “the Judeo-Christian tradition,” according to the ACLU of Virginia. It’s not just Wiccans the board has excluded. They have also excluded the Chesterfield County Sikh congregation. Sikhs, by the way, are monotheistic. Hmmm…
Last week, the ACLU and Americans United sent a letter asking that the board stop discriminating against clergy with beliefs that fall outside the Judeo-Christian tradition and arguing that Greece requires that the public invocation be open to all faiths.
This should be unsurprising to anyone who follows this issue. It’s hard for anyone in the minority — racial, ethnic, gender, religious, etc. — to paddle against the current of majority. It’s exhausting to have to constantly explain what it’s like to people who don’t have a good frame of reference. That’s part of the privilege of the majority.
Chesterfield County isn’t the only place in the country where religious freedom isn’t respected. A Nebraska mayor was breathtakingly dismissive of the reasonable complaints of the Omaha Atheists. The city of La Vista, Neb., hosted a “Faith and Freedom” Memorial Day event on Sunday. One of the members of the Omaha Atheists, Robert Fuller, had some concerns. So he did what any concerned citizen would do. He gave his business card to Mayor Douglas Kindig and asked if the two of them could meet to discuss Fuller’s concerns.
And everyone responded reasonably and had a good discussion about church and state separation over coffee. The end.
Ha! Yeah, right. What really happened? This happened, according to Raw Story:
“Take me to f—ing court because I don’t care,” Kindig allegedly told Fuller.
He went on to say that “minorities are not going to run [his] city.”
Well, that escalated quickly.
There’s clearly a lot of emotion here. It was a Memorial Day event; maybe the good mayor was in an emotional state. If that’s so, I’m sure it could all be cleared up with a simple apology. Kindig did later issue a statement, but it’s not what I would call an apology.
“I am truly sorry that my response to this representative caused backlash against the City. I was coming out of a very emotional event at which local veterans who were killed in action were recognized, and my reaction was certainly emotional in nature. It is my hope all sides can move forward together,” said Kindig.
So he’s sorry he has to endure the consequences of his actions. Allow me to play the world’s tiniest violin.
These two cases illustrate how “religious freedom” in this country can turn out to be anything but. When you are a member of a majority religion, it’s easy to say that people should just ignore these issues. However, with that majority status comes the power to enforce a certain religion without even realizing it. Religious freedom doesn’t mean the freedom of one religion to exist without competition. It means that anyone can believe or not believe as they see fit. That’s why being open and welcoming to different faiths is important. That’s why official neutrality by the government on the issue of religion is important.
These two events make me believe even more firmly that governmental endorsement of religion and prayer isn’t about religious freedom. It’s about privileging one belief system over others. If it was really about religious freedom, more of an effort would be made to be inclusive and listen to grievances of the minority. But that’s not what happens. Freedom of religion is one of the great things about this country, and I desperately hope it’s not slipping away.
Photo Credit: Chris Yarzab via Flickr