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The Kirksville City Council in Missouri is considering bringing invocations back to their meetings a year after an atheist convinced them to switch it to a moment of silence. It’s happening because a new council member with Christian nationalist tendencies thinks his religion needs to be injected into the start of meetings.

The saga began last summer when an atheist named Ethan Gabel, who lives in Kirksville, sent an email to the council informing them of research he had done. Of the 331 invocations given in front of the council since 2005, 226 of them were Christian prayers often delivered by local Christian leaders. The other 105 (many of which occurred during the pandemic) were delivered by the mayor, council members, or the city clerk, all of which were concerning for different reasons since they lent government authority to those prayers.

Still, Gabel said, the outcome was clear: “… it appears that the Kirksville City Council itself endorses Christianity above all other religions and is actively ignoring the doctrine of church-state separation enshrined in the United States Constitution.”

While the council had the legal opportunity to open the forum to non-Christian faiths and non-religious people altogether, it’s a lot of unnecessary hassle. The city would have no control over what people said, which could lead to chaos or bigotry, depending on who’s doing the talking. Gabel suggested they replace the invocation with a moment of silence. People who wanted to pray could still have that opportunity, but no one else needed to be subject to it.

After looking into the matter and discussing their options, the council agreed that Gabel had a point. They switched to the moment of silence.

Last month, the five-person council got a new member: Kabir Bansal. Since getting sworn in, Bansal has used his official Facebook page to say “Christ is risen” (on Easter), “In God We Trust” (for no reason), and celebrate the National Day of Prayer.

So when he attended his first study session meeting on Monday, reinstating the invocations was at the forefront of his mind. A 30-minute discussion ensued and you can hear it below:

Bansal made clear he didn’t intend to alienate anyone or create divisions… before proceeding to do just that. He said he personally benefitted from prayer. (That’s not justification to force Christian prayers on everyone.) He said the Boy Scouts came to meetings and recited the Pledge of Allegiance: “Why do we say ‘One nation under God’? Because we recognize we’re not a perfect people but we believe in something greater than us, sovereign.” (That phrase was wedged into the Pledge in 1954, as part of a Christian reaction to “godless” Communism. It was a political act that has been far more divisive than useful.)

To be fair, I’m not saying anything the other council members didn’t bring up to him in the moment. Good on them for raising the right objections throughout the discussion—and always respectfully.

Maybe the most telling exchange was this one with Mayor Zac Burden:

BURDEN: What if the council chose to invoke a non-Christian God?

BANSAL: … Well, God is…

BURDEN: … Or chose to invoke something evil?

BANSAL: … We are one nation under God.

There’s no room in Bansal’s bubble for anyone who doesn’t accept his personal deity. Everyone is supposed to bow down to his God and no one else. The idea of invoking Satan, or multiple gods, or anything that’s not the Christian God is alien to him.

And then, falling back on the flawed idea that the most popular religion should dictate government policy, Bansal claimed that of the 50 or so emails they received about the invocations this week, in anticipation of this discussion, “over 64%” were in favor of bringing back the invocation. He later added that only one person (Gabel) got the invocation eliminated, even though that one person merely raised the issue and happened to be right.

The end result of their discussion was that two members agreed to call for a vote on reinstating invocations at the next meeting (on Monday, May 16). The other three members made it clear they wanted to keep the moment of silence in place. So there will be a vote and it will likely fail. At the same time, this may be the first of many future attempts to shove religion back where it doesn’t belong.

Since it looks like the council is paying attention to their emails and hearing mostly from people who want to impose Christianity at meetings, you can always share your own opinions with them right here. I’m sure they would love to hear from respectful people who believe government officials should focus on the work they were elected to do when they’re on the clock. After all, they can always pray on their own time if they think God is actually listening.

Hemant Mehta is the founder of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, podcast co-host, and author of multiple books about atheism. He can be reached at @HemantMehta.