Freethought NOW!

It’s time for atheists and freethinkers to crash the prayer party

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Supreme Court hero Ellery Schempp, who started the protest that led to a landmark 1963 ruling against recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in public schools, emailed our office Monday to say that “FFRF is vital after the awful Greece decision. This is why we need FFRF!”

We share Ellery’s dismay but are warmed by his confidence in FFRF and strengthened by his commitment. Freedom depends on freethinkers —nonbelievers must escalate our campaign to ensure that secularism is honored again by our government so that reason prevails.

The ruling that blessed sectarian prayer in the town of Greece, N.Y., by the Supreme Court is a personal blow to the stature and rights of U.S. nonbelievers and non-Christians. Plaintiffs in the Americans United case were Susan Galloway, who is Jewish, and Linda Stephens, an atheist and member of FFRF. The court record documented their feelings of exclusion and discomfort over their town’s now 15-year practice of scheduling and inviting almost exclusively Christian clergy to open governmental meetings.

The Supreme Court’s ultra-conservative, all-Catholic majority openly approved such exclusion. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the decision, cavalierly said:

“Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable; and an Establishment Clause violation is not made out any time a person experiences a sense of affront from the expression of contrary religious views in a legislative forum . . .”

Kennedy makes it sound as though Susan or Linda had simply wandered into a Christian church service and cried foul. But they encountered these Christian rituals and supplications not at church but at their town hall, while conducting city business.

Chillingly, Kennedy added: “Offense . . . does not equate to coercion.” Notably, coercion has never been required to prove an Establishment Clause violation. Requiring coercion would be a direct constitutional U-turn. Yet coercion clearly existed, as even Kennedy’s recitation of the record shows, when two citizens are told to rise and participate in a prayer to a deity in which they disbelieve by their local government. There should be no religious test for citizenship, just as the Constitution bars any religious test for public office.

As we pointed out in our amicus brief in the Greece case, public officials and judges have no excuse not to be aware of the changing demographics in our nation that show 20-30% of the population today identify as nonreligious. That’s a lot of citizens to exclude and, yes, to offend.

The majority opinion claims government prayer is “historic,” yet ignores the fact that the framers of our Constitution never once prayed during the four-month-long constitutional convention that produced our godless Constitution. If the framers didn’t need to pray over something as momentous as the national Constitution, why do local public officials need to pray over such mundane decisions as liquor licenses, sewers and variances?

The issue of unconstitutional governmental prayer is near and dear to our hearts at the Freedom From Religion Foundation. One of the most common complaints we receive from citizens is about encountering prayer at local governmental boards. Protesting inappropriate governmental prayer actually led to the formation of FFRF.

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Back in 1976, when I was a college student and my mother, Anne Nicol Gaylor, was a full-time volunteer activist, we had reason to go before a committee of the Madison (Wis.) Common Council. We were shocked and confounded that committee members asked us to bow our heads while they uttered a prayer to Jesus. When we realized clergymen were regularly leading prayers to open the entire council, we went before the city asking them to drop prayer.

Our request made “top of the fold” news coverage, and soon other freethinkers and secularists asked to join us. The rest, as they say, is history, as we have gone from the original two to 20,000 members nationwide.

Within a year, the city of Madison dropped prayer, and the Dane County Board dropped clergy-led prayer and substituted opening remarks led by rotating supervisors. The following year, my complaint as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison ended a more than 130-year abuse of religious invocations and benedictions at University of Wisconsin-Madison commencements.

One of FFRF’s first federal lawsuits was filed against the practice of opening the Wisconsin Legislature with paid prayer. A parking spot for the (invariably Christian) chaplain of the day was reserved and the guest chaplain received a per diem stipend.

That federal lawsuit languished for five years in district court, then was thrown out in 1983 when the Supreme Court issued its Marsh v. Chambers ruling. That decision carved out a narrow exception for governmental prayer on the grounds that the paid Nebraska Senate chaplain was giving nondenominational prayers directed not at citizens but at the senators. (And Sen. Ernie Chambers, another First Amendment hero, ultimately prevailed despite technically losing his case, in persuading his fellow senators to drop paid prayer.)

FFRF and many of our members subsequent to Marsh have successfully protested sectarian governmental prayer. Many enlightened local boards have dropped prayers altogether. Neither Marsh nor Greece requires any governmental body to open with prayer.

Marsh, as FFRF argued in our amicus brief, has always been an outlier — out of line with other Establishment Clause rulings or precedent — its reasoning specious. Marsh unfortunately OK’d prayers if they were a governmental “tradition” and called government prayer a “tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held.”

By similar bizarre reasoning, would slavery, which was a scourge on our continent for four centuries, have been defended as a “tradition”? Long-term abuse doesn’t mitigate but only worsens a violation. FFRF urged the high court this year to overturn Marsh, but instead it issued a ruling that is incalculably worse.

In Greece, Kennedy argues: “Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates, unfettered by what an administrator or judge considers to be nonsectarian.” This misses the point: Government shouldn’t be inviting prayer into the public sphere in the first place!

Kennedy blurs the line between personal speech (i.e., from the unfettered speech from the pulpit in a church) and government speech, even seemingly denying that a government body that schedules and hosts clergy prayer is engaging in governmental speech:

“To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures sponsoring prayers and the courts deciding these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech, thus involving government in religious matters to a far greater degree than is the case under the town’s current practice of neither editing nor approving prayers in advance nor criticizing their content after the fact.”

Kennedy, grasping at straws, argues prayer “is meant to lend gravity to the occasion.” The only gravitas needed is to declare a meeting in order. (Sticklers can use a gavel, if they must.) The only “saving grace” in Kennedy’s ruling is his one caveat:

“If the course and practice over time shows that the invocations denigrate nonbelievers or religious minorities, threaten damnation, or preach conversion, many present may consider the prayer to fall short of the desire to elevate the purpose of the occasion and to unite lawmakers in their common effort. That circumstance would present a different case than the one presently before the Court.”

Although Kennedy recorded that some of the town’s invocations had castigated the “minority” who objected to prayer or lamented that other towns did not have “God-fearing” public leaders, that didn’t phase him. Kennedy writes: “Absent a pattern of prayers that over time denigrate, proselytize, or betray an impermissible government purpose, a challenge based solely on the content of a prayer will not likely establish a constitutional violation.”

Government-fostered, vocal prayer to a deity one does not believe in by its very nature is proselytizing, coercive and denigrating. Preaching the Christian party line, that one must “believe on Jesus to be saved,” by its very nature is disparaging, rejects other faiths and implicitly threatens damnation.

FFRF has a saying, coined by our principal founder, that “Nothing fails like prayer” (inspiring a song by Dan Barker, Listen here. Cemeteries are full of people who prayed to live, and wishful thinking cannot suspend the natural laws of the universe. Our species and our planet face an onslaught of unparalleled threats to our survival. The answers cannot and will not come from above. The answers must come from human ingenuity, determination and compassion. Pious politicians need to get off their knees and get to work. (Hear Dan’s clever song of the same title.)

Kennedy’s opinion is predicated in part on the idea that the town of Greece would be open to invocations by minorities, even atheists, despite a decade-long track record of inviting only Christian clergy. Freethinkers: It’s time to crash the party, to ask for equal time to give our own atheist homilies and freethought invocations at local board meetings.

To that end, FFRF is offering the “Nothing Fails Like Prayer” award — an all-expenses-paid trip to open FFRF’s annual convention, plus a plaque and cash prize — to the person who gives the best atheist/freethought invocation as an “equal time” response. Read more here about the contest. 

P.S. For this election year, FFRF has produced buttons, stickers and T-shirts that say, “I’m secular and I vote.” The alarming ultra-conservative trend on the current Supreme Court is a reminder that seculars must support congressional and presidential candidates who will make it a priority to nominate or confirm judges and justices who will revere, not thumb their noses at, our secular Constitution.

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