Back in May, during a meeting of the Board of County Commissioners in Polk County, Florida, an atheist delivered the invocation. The agenda called for Sarah Ray, the co-founder of the Atheist Community of Polk County, to speak before everyone moved on to the Pledge of Allegiance.
Instead, after her invocation, there was another “corrective” prayer, specifically to Jesus, delivered by Chairman Rick Wilson.
There was no reason for the second invocation other than to make sure Christians got the last word during a secular government gathering. It was a quintessential example of Christian privilege. It’s not like you’d ever see a government official “fix” a Christian invocation, but Wilson felt obligated to do so when it was an atheist speaking.
Last month, when another atheist, David Williamson, gave an invocation, he said the Commissions remained seated (and chatted with each other) while he spoke. It was just a different form of disrespect.
If the local government can’t treat invocation speakers equally, the practice needs to be eliminated entirely. This shouldn’t be complicated.
Now, however, the Commission is making everything worse.
Later today, the Board plans to approve a new change that would give five chaplains (who work with the local fire department) the role of delivering presumably Christian-only invocations.
Polk County Commissioner Bill Braswell said he’s pushing for chaplains to lead the invocation because religious leaders scheduled to do so too often don’t show up for the meeting or cancel, leaving staff scrambling to find a replacement at the last minute.
It never seemed to occur to these people that they could just eliminate the invocation, pray on their own time, and use the meeting to do the actual work they were elected to do. Or even move to a moment of silence.
This isn’t just a simple fix to a small problem, though. This move would effectively shut out Muslims, atheists, Hindus, Satanists, and other non-Christians from ever delivering those invocations — while Christians get a monopoly on the practice.
The Polk County leaders are basically declaring their government a Christian one.
The county defends the move by saying the chaplain role is open to anyone… but a quick glance at the Fire Rescue’s website has no way for anyone to apply for a chaplain position.
It could easily lead to a lawsuit. In October, months after the atheist invocation incident, a coalition of groups including the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Atheist Community of Polk County, Central Florida Freethought Community, and Americans United for Separation of Church and State sent a letter to the County calling their actions “discriminatory and unconstitutional.” It’s possible the same groups could sue the County if they decide chaplains are the way to go.
If the problem is no-shows, then the simple solution is to eliminate a practice that even pastors don’t seem to care about. But when you elect people who believe (or act like) promoting Jesus is part of the job description, we shouldn’t expect anything different.
(Featured image via Adobe Stock)