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The religious equality watchdog organization American Atheists (AA) has denounced as unconstitutional and anti-atheist the Connersville (Indiana) City Council’s new policy that appears to exclude atheists from presenting invocations at official meetings.

Although I could not find text of the final approved policy online, the draft text in late January can be read here. The draft text does not specifically exclude nontheists from giving invocations, but it effectively excludes them because the right to speak at council meetings is only offered to representatives of formal religious organizations with tax-exempt status as such.

In a media statement this week, AA called for the council to amend its discriminatory policy.

The policy now “invites and welcomes the religious leaders of any and all local religions, including but not limiting to ministers, priests, chaplains, rabbis, deacons, clerics, imams, elders, and the like to participate in providing invocations for the City Council and Board of Public Works.”

Although the policy clearly would prevent atheists from giving invocations at council meetings, the text notes that it is “not intended, and shall not be implemented and construed in any way, to [indicate the council’s preference for] any faith, belief, non-belief, opinion, religion, non-religion, or religious denomination or lack thereof.” Its purpose, instead, is to “acknowledge and express respect for the diversity of religious denominations and non-religious denominations, and faiths and beliefs represented and practiced among the citizens of Connersville,” the policy states.

Which leaves out non-affiliated religious apathists, humanists, atheists, agnostics and other freethinkers in society, which today account for approximately a quarter of the population.

The conundrum presented by such policies favoring religion over nonreligion is that they have the effect of allowing only religious speech in government bodies’ public rites, whereas excluded nontheistic concepts focus on many of the same concerns but from a no-God vantage: the Golden Rule, social morality, ethics, altruism, the meaning of life, etc.

So, in compiling a list of “a broad and diverse pool of religious leaders and other representatives of any and all local religions,” but not of “non-religious denominations,” the City of Connersville is, in fact, favoring religion over nonreligion.

The council says the traditional invocations are meant to “solemnize its proceedings,” and the new policy infers, falsely, that nontheistic speech is not solemnizing.

Connersville’s council policy was revised after American Atheists’ Indiana Assistant Director Jama Sullivan in January asked to give a secular invocation.

“Just like religious leaders who have delivered invocations, I am an active leader for the secular community in Connersville,” said Sullivan, founder and executive director of Whitewater Freethought, a group of more than 80 atheist, agnostic, and Christian members committed to community service, American Atheist reported in a newsletter. “Instead of accepting me with open arms, my local government went to great lengths to exclude me and others who do good without a god.”

Geoffrey Blackwell, American Atheists’ litigation counsel, said in the newsletter that “precisely because” Connersville’s new policy is discriminatory, it’s also unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court has been clear,” Blackwell said.

In Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014), the high court ruled that volunteer chaplains could open each legislative session in Greece, New York, with a prayer because “the town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation,” the newsletter explains.

“I know from my own fundamentalist past that some people are driven by ignorance and fear of nonreligious people—and the idea that our very presence is an attack on their religious beliefs. It isn’t,” said Sullivan.

A acute discomfort is manifest among many state and local government bodies with the idea of nontheists giving formal invocations to open sessions, as religious representatives have traditionally done.

Religions routinely cry that secularists are trying to get ride of prayer in government, but that’s untrue. Secularists believe all such prayer should be ended if it continues to disenfranchise and discriminate against nonbelievers who want to so speak.

A recent article in The Daily Signal, the news arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation, gives a flavor of the debate from the fundamentalist side.

“When legislative prayer is attacked, it’s not to provide inclusivity, but to censor religion. It is disrespectful and deeply divisive to demand that legislative prayers be silenced because someone has an aversion to religion,” the article opined. “Demanding that legislative prayers end, be neutered of the religious tradition that informs the prayer-giver, or be forced into ever-increasing secularity ‘provides a heckler’s veto to voices on the fringe,’ as Judge Thomas Ambro of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit wrote last August in Fields v. Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.”

The website invoked the words of Judge Jeffrey Sutton of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, who concurred with his court’s decision to uphold the practice of legislator-led prayer in Bormuth v. County of Jackson:

History judges us in this area. We do not judge history. For all of American history, such prayers have been allowed, whether invoking Jesus, God, or something else, whether by government-paid chaplains or by the elected officials themselves. And for all of American history, the United States Supreme Court has authorized such prayers. No one doubted the practice for most of our history.

“Neither should anyone else doubt the constitutionality of opening public meetings with prayer. Legislative prayers provide a meaningful opportunity to solemnize the meetings of government. They invite lawmakers to consider their place in the universe and even provide an opportunity to invoke divine guidance in legislating. Accommodating the religious beliefs of not only lawmakers, but private citizens, demonstrates a respect and diversity often missing from public life.”

So, this speciously informs that only believers in supposed invisible, supernatural divinities have the capacity to “consider their place in the universe,” much less achieve good governance.

This is prejudice, pure and simple, bred of unsubstantiated and pathological paranoia about atheists — a paranoia that informs the Bible itself and all of Western history in the Christian era (note the illustration embedde in this post).

It’s long past time to treat this unholy affliction with the dismissiveness it deserves.


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Rick Snedeker is a retired American journalist/editor who now writes in various media and pens nonfiction books. He has received nine past top South Dakota state awards for newspaper column, editorial,...