Of Councils and Gods

This week’s meeting of the Quartzsite Council has an item on its agenda that piqued my interest:

“Discussion of letter received from the Freedom from Religious Foundation [sic] and possible action to replace prayer with a moment of silence as invocation.”

I don’t know how the Freedom from Religion Foundation found Quartzsite, but it’s likely that one of the hundreds of YouTube videos of the town’s turbulent political proceedings was sent to them, raising an Establishment Clause objection to the invocation on each agenda.

The invocation is a standard feature of council meetings across America. A local minister or other religious person leads each gathering in prayer before the rest of the agenda is discussed, typically taking the form of asking God for his guidance and help and blessing upon the meeting and the council.

That’s fairly harmless, right?

It may not be that simple. One of the objections is relatively obvious: what if a council member is not a theist, but a deist, agnostic or atheist? Or what if they are theists but with respect to a different god or gods than the one being prayed to? Or what if a very religious council member simply feels that God and government need to be held at separate ends of the moral-legal spectrum, as Thomas Jefferson did?

Americans believe in God more than any other developed country, so the invocations at the beginnings of most council meetings have gone largely unchallenged. But there are a few court challenges that give precedent in this matter, the most instructive of which is Marsh v. Chambers, (1983). The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the invocation is constitutional, so long as it is not “exploited to proselytize or advance any one […] faith or belief.”

So, as long as the invocation remains open for Christians and Jews to pray to Jesus and Yahweh, Muslims to pray to Allah, Native Americans to pray to the Great Spirit, Wiccans to pray to the Moon God and atheists to ‘bless’ the meeting with civic values, then it’s legal.

For many Christians – who make up the majority in almost every town in the country – these are attacks on the traditional conservative values they think make America what it is. ‘Taking God out of….’ government, schools etc. is regarded as inviting judgement and generally being a bad move for the nation.

But one wonders why the Creator of the universe in all its vastness and majesty – a Supreme Being that is greater than the whole of the cosmos – would need to be invoked in meetings about local ordinances and politics in the first place. As the FFRF puts it:

“Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before local government bodies on civic, secular matters: variances, sewers, permits, licenses, repair, etc. They should not be subjected to a religious show or test, or be expected to bow heads and demonstrate religious obeisance at a government function. (We fail to see why divine guidance is needed over such earthly matters, anyway.)”

This raises perhaps the most important point of all: Towns have diverse populations of people, who have a variety of backgrounds and religions and belief systems, all of whom need to be equally represented in government. Does it make sense to imbue the meetings of that government with a sense that the civic proceedings are being conducted not only with their needs and desires in mind (democracy) but with the needs and desires of a deity in mind (theocracy), who they might not even believe exists?

Religion is most commonly thought of as being a personal matter. While Jefferson was talking about the reasons for what he called the ‘wall of separation between Church and State’ enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, he put it like this:

“…religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, [and] he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship…”

And therefore, elected council members are free to pray on their own time, appeal privately to God for help in decision-making, or use divine guidance when they sense it. But Jefferson’s wall of separation should always be observed. In Quartzsite, that could mean a moment of silence for reflection at the beginning of each meeting, of which people of all beliefs can partake. In Lodi, California, they established the following rules after running into a similar challenge:

  1. Leaders of any religion can give the invocation;
  2. Non-religious people can give a “Call to Civic Responsibility”;
  3. Disclaimers are included on the agenda saying that the prayers are voluntary and don’t necessarily reflect the council’s views;
  4. Invocations that directly seek to convert or demean a particular religious belief or lack thereof will be prohibited.

These rules strike me as a fair way to keep the tradition of the invocation, if town councils feel such a tradition is important.


John Wright is host of KLPZ’s weekday afternoon show from 3-5pm and editor of Parker Live. He grew up in Northern Ireland and moved with his American wife and son to the Parker area in 2004.