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From the Intern Desk: “God is in the Gallery”

In my Massachusetts hometown, both the city council and school board open their meetings with what could broadly be described as “invocations.”

The city council, for their part, opens their meetings with a rather secular invocation, calling on the councilors to do good while they have the opportunity. The invocation includes no references to any sort of theistic god, while being eloquent and lending significant gravity to the proceedings. As far as I’m concerned, it is the gold standard, if such a thing is possible.

The school board, on the other hand, opens their meetings with what would only be called an “invocation” by someone who had never heard it; it is a prayer, thoroughly theistic and unambiguously Christian from start to finish. “Lord,” it begins, as read by one of the school board members themselves, “Let us acknowledge your goodness and mercy, and ask your blessings on all our deliberations.” It goes on to thank this Lord for their positions and the chance to serve “the young people entrusted to our care.”

The school board’s prayer always seemed to me like a blatant violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, using a government forum to assert the existence and identity of a higher power in a Christian fashion. Unfortunately, my idealistic perception of the Constitution is out of touch with the Christian nationalist Constitution the American judicial system has been constructing over the last several decades.

Legislative prayer, like the examples performed by public bodies in my hometown, was officially upheld as constitutional in the 1983 Supreme Court ruling Marsh v. Chambers. The ruling was an early step in a growing judicial trend of overriding the text of the Constitution in favor of liberally interpreting “historical evidence.” Legislative prayer has always existed in the United States, the majority decision argued, so it could not be a violation of the Establishment Clause. It was merely a “tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

The legal gymnastics performed by the word “tolerable” in the Court’s decision are truly astounding.

However ill-informed it may have been, the Marsh decision officially stated that a “public body” (in the instance of this case specifically, the Nebraska legislature) may not only open their sessions with a prayer invoking “divine guidance” but may also hire a chaplain, paid with taxpayer funds, for the express purpose of delivering those prayers. As if to poke the Establishment Clause to confirm that they had indeed killed it, the decision concluded by saying that the facts that Nebraska had only ever had “Judeo-Christian” prayers and had only had chaplains of one denomination for sixteen years were irrelevant to their decision.

Three decades later, the Supreme Court ruled again in favor of legislative prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway. The case dealt with the prayer policy of the town board of Greece, New York, which invited a local member of the clergy to deliver a prayer to open their monthly meetings. The predominantly Christian town, unsurprisingly, almost always had a Christian prayer, and two residents charged that the policy violated the Establishment Clause due to how regularly the meeting was opened with reference to a specific god. The Court ruled that the town’s policy was constitutional, and that under the Free Exercise Clause (and the precedent of the Marsh decision) the Court had no legal standing to moderate the religious speech of those who delivered the invocations. No religious speech would ever be completely inoffensive, the Court argued, so drawing any line would be an exercise in futility.

Crucially, however, the majority decision written by Justice Anthony Kennedy opened with the town’s description of its own policy: “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”

Though it was likely unintentional (given the religious persuasion of the high court), the Court lent credence to the secular movement by suggesting that Greece’s policy was constitutional because it allowed anyone, including nonbelievers, to deliver the invocation.

In practice, as with many legal battles the secular community has had to face, it was not nearly that easy. Each year when Arizona State Rep. Athena Salman delivers a secular invocation in the Arizona House of Representatives, she is regularly met with backlash from her Republican colleagues. In 2019, her secular invocation was mocked by Rep. John Kavanagh who asked the chamber to acknowledge that “God is in the gallery.” Two years earlier, Rep. Mark Finchem protested that her invocation did not count and delivered his own Christian prayer in response, which he opened by asking his god for “forgiveness for our arrogance.” In 2013, Salman’s predecessor (and husband) current State Sen. Juan Mendez delivered a secular invocation and was similarly “corrected” as Rep. Steve Smith asked the legislature to give “due respect to the creator of the universe.”

Legislators aren’t the only ones faced with this problem; secular Americans merely attempting to exercise what the Greece decision defined as their constitutional right have been met with vocal and patronizing backlash in Berea, Kentucky, Lubbock, Texas, and Pensacola, Florida, among countless others.

And even that clause in the Greece decision has come under increased scrutiny from the Christian right, demonstrated by twin district court decisions in 2019. In April, an appeals court judge ruled against Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker in Barker v. Conroy, ruling that though Barker had been invited to deliver an invocation before Congress by his representative and though he met the chamber’s requirements to do so, he could be legally barred from participating because he was nontheistic. In their statement following the ruling, the FFRF criticized the court’s message as being that “if you don’t subscribe to theistic beliefs, you and your viewpoints are less valued among your elected representatives.”

In August of that same year, a Pennsylvania court handed down an even more expansive ruling in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives. In their decision, the judges declared that legislative prayer was inherently an invocation of “divine guidance,” and that atheists could therefore be legally excluded from the practice. The decision even took pains to assert that “a petition to human wisdom and the power of science” would not qualify.

The invocations that these atheists deliver (or are blocked from delivering) are often just as impactful, if not more so, than traditional prayer. In his proposed invocation, Barker stated that his highest power was “We, the People.” The higher power invoked by Salman was the “goodness in humanity.” Yet because the Christian right does not view their invocations as legitimate, atheists and humanists may be legally excluded from participating in their government in a manner in which a theist may not.

So with a religious practice that allows nontheists to be directly excluded increasingly becoming a cornerstone of public bodies’ agendas on the local, state, and federal level, how do nonreligious people win fair treatment for themselves? This is where Jocelyn Williamson comes in. 

In addition to serving as the Florida State Director of American Atheists and the Director of the Florida Humanist Association, Williamson is a co-founder and director of the Central Florida Freethought Community. To her, the solution is straightforward: keep pushing.

Once the Greece decision was handed down, Williamson and her husband David mobilized the CFFC to “immediately [reach] out to a variety of cities and counties in the area” to guarantee secular representation in local invocation practices. By the end of 2015, the CFFC had delivered 30 secular invocations, including seven by the Williamsons themselves.

It has not been an entirely smooth process. She recalls that while delivering one invocation, “the entire time … there was a woman holding up a Bible in the first row.” In another, a councilmember rose after her to give an evangelical prayer in apparent retaliation. And some secular invocators have been shut down before they could even deliver their invocation. Atheists were barred from delivering invocations before the Brevard County Commissioners until early 2021, after a six-year legal battle ended and the county’s policy blocking nontheistic invocations was overturned.

“The hardest part,” according to Williamson, “is just getting in the first time.” For all the backlash nonreligious invocations have received, she says that they consistently receive support from constituents and elected officials alike once they do get the opportunity to speak. 

At a meeting where a local council was considering replacing their invocation with a nonsectarian moment of silence, a Jewish councilor rose to say that she had never felt included by the often explicitly Christian prayer practice of the board. “It was a very moving testimony,” Williamson says, who attended the meeting to support ending the invocation practice as well. When the council voted to keep the practice and Williamson returned each year to give an invocation, she says that she was “giving an invocation for her.”

To Williamson, who serves on the Council of Traditions for the Interfaith Council of Central Florida, secular invocations have a unique opportunity for true interreligious inclusion. “While it sounds and feels really good to say ‘we need state-church separation’ and ‘I’m here to represent atheists,’ I would argue to some people that no, we’re there to represent everybody, and we should make everybody feel welcome. And if they are Sikh or Hindu or Buddhist or Jewish or Muslim, they should feel welcome, because they’re [often] not giving invocations.”

“I do think for changing things on a local basis, the more visibility you can have as a nonreligious group, the more effective you’re going to be in having a dialogue,” Williamson argues. In this sense, secular invocations almost become self-perpetuating; where nontheists have delivered invocations throughout central Florida, they have regularly been invited back, because they demonstrate not just that humanists and atheists exist in their community, but also that they are committed to delivering positive and respectful invocations. And once secular groups have gotten their foot in the door, they become more visible, more recognizable, and more acknowledged.

“In the end, what is my goal?” Williamson asks. “My goal, personally, is that we are accepted and embraced in our local communities.” The key to this ultimately occurring is to provide a positive and inclusive alternative to a currently exclusionary practice. 

This fight is an extraordinarily complex one. Where judges have upheld secular representation in Williamson v. Brevard County, they have opposed it in Fields v. Speaker and Barker v. Conroy. Where some communities, like many in central Florida, allow community members to deliver invocations, communities like mine afford their constituents no such privilege. A patchwork of competing and often conflicting laws dominates the country, with no one precedent to prevail, making national secular mobilization on legislative prayer far more difficult than other church-state separation issues.

This, however, may ultimately work in the secular community’s favor.

Local problems will require local solutions. No national organization, however well-equipped, well-informed, or well-intentioned, will be able to address the issue of visibility on their own. If secular Americans are uncomfortable with the way current invocation practices are being carried out, then the solution is to make their faces known and their voices heard. So many arguments in favor of keeping explicitly religious invocation policies, from the Appeals Court for the Third Circuit to the Board of Commissioners of Brevard County, rely on the misguided assumption that there is no organic opposition to these practices. When one individual steps forward, they can be branded as a provocateur, as happened to Dan Barker, Brian Fields, David Williamson, and many others.

Secular Americans are out there. By recent estimates, we make up 29% of the population of the United States. Another 6% belong to a non-Christian religious tradition. As Jocelyn Williamson’s story highlights, unless directly prompted on it, most people will not say when they feel excluded by an invocation practice. It should be our job as secularists committed to positive political action to make sure those 35% of Americans, and the many Christians who feel uncomfortable with legislative prayer, are supported enough to be able to voice their discomfort.

Reform is possible, whatever it may look like on a local scale. And in many cases, the infrastructure is already in place. The member organizations of the Secular Coalition for America have 804 local affiliates that are doing this work already. Hundreds more organizations are affiliated with our allies or are fighting for secular Americans independently. 

Keep fighting, keep making our voices heard, and keep showing up. And when Christian nationalists try to tell us that “God is in the gallery,” let’s make sure we’re there too.

 

Note: This is part of the irregular series “From the Intern Desk,” in which college interns for the Secular Coalition for America produce topical editorials on the issues that impact our daily lives. This piece was contributed by Aidan Scully.

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