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


Jim Ven
Jim V1 years ago

thanks for the article.

Robert Hamm
Robert Hamm3 years ago

God in our country……But WHOs God. It doesnt day JESUS anywhere.

They are VERY careful not to define any particular religion. They did NOT want the governet being a Thocracy PERIOD!!!! WE live under religious traditions. Most religions preach many of the same things. Love your nighbor etc There is a difference between religious principles and give Christianity free reign to rule.

Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill3 years ago

Our founding fathers wanted God in our government, what they didn't want was government in our churches. This "separation of church and state" came from a letter that Jefferson wrote later. We really need to start teaching history with truth.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

Church and state need to be separate; as it has been for the past 200 years. In my opinion, religion did not run the country until these past several years and now it is being crammed down our throats in every aspect of government including judicial - Supreme Court. This is very disturbing.

Donna F.
Donna F3 years ago

I believe people can individually bow their heads in silent prayer, but government should always be the secular part of life.

BMutiny TCorporationsEvil

Janine: "He created the Heavens n Earth n all that dwell within on judgement day all will no then the believers and non-believers I don't want my soul to go the other way I want to be in Paradise with Jesus Where do U want to be when that day comes????"

Janine - Somebody LIED TO YOU when you were a little kid and didn't know any better and maybe you believed in Santa Claus too, and the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy.
Please EDUCATE YOURSELF as to SCIENCE, for example.
And nothing is "punishing" me for saying so and believing so.
"Paradise" is an ancient Persian word for "Garden". There are no "Gardens" out IN SPACE. There aren't people floating around out there....
I've resigned myself {I guess} to being DEAD when I have to be...
And I have A PERFECT RIGHT TO STATE WHAT I BELIEVE, just as YOU do, no more and no less.... but not the right to FORCE it on people, AND NEITHER DO ANY CHRISTIANS....

Da Zen M.
Bald Eagle S3 years ago

What they should be doing is sitting in a circle with their hands in the air begging the great spirit for the wisdom to get their heads out of their axxxs so they can make better decisions. So many of you are absolutely clueless on this site. Like the bleeding of live animals. Do we need to do it anymore. No. Why was it done. Logic. Blood in the meat would make it spoil quicker and people would get sick. Unclean. If bleed while alive the meat would have even less blood. Simple. Inhumane. No. Human. Other animals only take what they need. Since we became an agrarian society that was the beginning of the end. The start of greed. More resources easier life. A life lost. A purpose lost in a drug addicted world. What is the drug. Money. Power. Technology. Text text tweet tweet. etc...... What is your drug of choice?

The supernatural will be proven natural by science.

The american Indians had a completely integrated way of life. A purpose. A balance. Respect.

I read a book on Uncas. He unified the tribes of CT ending indian conflict and allowed the settleling of the US eastern coast. He struggled with this thought of the right thing to do. As he was older and sat upon looking about the bay seeing the activity, he wondered if his father would have approved if he did the right thing. If he did not do that, and the US growth was held back by some time, would Hitler have been victorious in WWII.....

You might want to think many times

Marianne R.
Marianne R3 years ago

keep religion out of government.

Rick Abrams
Rick Abrams3 years ago

Dear David,

You should not have to listen to their self-promotion holier than thou speeches.

People should then have time to say that they do not think that cannibalism and vampirism should be taught to children.

David B.
David B3 years ago

and there is a perfect example of the christian religion being the same as the muslim one. it's to be allowed to be the only one in this country as the muslims are in muslim countries. neither have the courage of their convictions . neither can stand up against one another . they are both rotten to the core , and can not be anywhere but in there own country .when I vote I elect politicians not preachers , so why do I have to listen to them spout the religious crap before anything else happens ?