Most people know that a lot of public meetings begin with the pledge of allegiance. But there are also an awful lot of government meetings that begin with a pastor blessing the whole shebang.
Most people probably hear about this topic at the federal level when NPR or other major media outlets talk about Democrats bringing in a non-Christian official to offer an invocation at Congress, or when the Republicans are in power, how all the invocations seem to be presented by mostly Evangelical ministers. But a lot of local government bodies hold these invocations, and even though recent Supreme Court bodies haven’t ruled against them, they clearly show a separation of church and state problem.
Take this recent invocation at the La Crosse City Council. It was presented by a Christian Pastor, of which the clear majority of the invocations at council meetings are. And while the prayer was a positive message, it violated what the core of city government should be: our elected representatives making good decisions, not the God we pray to making the good decisions for them.
Lord God of Heaven, we call upon your holy name over this convocation tonight. Lord, I thank you for every person that is here. Every council member, for the mayor himself, for all those assistants and attendants and for their families that have let them come. Offer them as a part to solving issues and concerns for La Crosse.
We give you praise for each one that is here. I thank you that you are the divine God of wisdom. And I ask for your wisdom to descend upon each person here tonight that is about to make decisions that will change lives of people in La Crosse.
I thank you for your divine wisdom flowing down upon each one. I thank you also, Lord that there will be a spirit of cooperation and getting along tonight. That when questions come up that have two sides, Lord I thank you that you will help them to decide which side it best, what part will be best and how to make a decision that will be best for all participants, all the residents of this city.
I thank you that when a decision is made, people will get in line and will cooperate with that. I thank you for that spirit of unity here tonight. I thank you for a spirit of creativity that people on this council can be creative to find the best answer, that nothing hidden will not be revealed, that they will see all aspects of every issue and though the question might not be hard, I pray that there will be an easy answer that can be found tonight.
I give you praise for guiding and directing and that your wisdom might help us on each one that makes decisions tonight. I give you praise in the name of Jesus, our savior, Amen.
~Rev. Kevin Knack Living Word Christian Church
The core message of this prayer is thus: The city council can’t function without god. And for the city council to do its job well, that again requires god. If it takes god to make this apparently clockwork universe in the pastor’s mind go round, then why do we even need government and democracy in the first place? Why can’t we just pray to god that people miraculously figure things out one on one?
According to this invocation, there is no separation of church and state. The city council can only be wise if god shares his wisdom with them. They can only cooperate if god gives them “the spirit of cooperation.” They can’t even figure out what is best without god’s help.
This invocation isn’t neutral. It ends with a shout-out to Jesus, who the pastor says is everyone’s savior, regardless of whether there were any Jews, Muslims, Buddhists or atheists in the crowd. The Supreme Court has ruled that local government bodies can hold invocations, as long as it is private citizens giving them and the consideration for who gives one is viewpoint neutral, which isn’t always followed by elected officials, and is still a cop out and violates the spirit of religious freedom.
The city also puts a disclaimer out there, claiming “Any invocation that may be offered at the Council meeting shall be the voluntary offering of a private citizen, to and for the benefit of the Council. The views or beliefs expressed by the invocation speaker have not been previously reviewed or approved by the Council, and the Council will not endorse the religious beliefs or views of this or any other speaker.”
But this isn’t any different than a private citizen giving a prayer at the beginning of the school day at a public school. That isn’t constitutional, even if the considerations are viewpoint neutral. Freedom of religion also means freedom from religion.
And being viewpoint neutral doesn’t mean a thing if a community is de facto one religion. The agenda’s for the La Crosse City Council, list only Christian churches giving invocations at this year’s meetings. Christ Episcopal Church, Bethany Church, the La Crosse Police Department chaplain, Calvary Apostolic Church, Neighborhood City Church and Living Word Christian Church all got to provide a christian message at what should have been a secular government meeting. No Buddhist, Baha’i or Muslim pastors gave an invocation, even though there are nearly 500 adherents in La Crosse County, according to the Association of Religion Data Archive, and more than 47,000 people who claim no religious affiliation or are atheist, the largest denomination in the county.
It was preaching, plain and simple. It was exclusive, plain and simple. Even if other faiths or denominations could give an invocation, even an atheist one, city councils shouldn’t be doing this in the first place. They are here to serve the residents, not invoke magical blessings.