Why you shouldn’t have invocations at public meetings

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.


Pray away the cancer!

It’s the one thing you never want to see on your social media feed — a post letting friends and family know that a young child was battling cancer.

The poor little girl, bald from the chemotherapy treatments used to attack the offending biological cells making her sick, couldn’t have been more than three or four years old. But she was still smiling, even in the videos where she was playing with toys in yet another doctor’s waiting room as the worried parents waited for the results of some new test, blood draw or scan.

And then I saw the cover picture for the girl’s Facebook Page. It is the first image you see before being hit up for money to help the family cover all those medical expenses, travel expenses, missed days of work and sleepless nights worrying about how to keep all the plates of doctor’s appointments, meals, everything spinning.

“Dear God, may every cancer cell be wiped out your by Your powerful hands. Amen!”

And that’s when you realize that burning sensation is because your face has met your palm near the speed of sound and you sigh about how families like this can put so much effort into fighting the battle and then congratulate some invisible friend for supposedly doing all the heavy lifting.

I’m going to riff a lot on the thoughts of atheist activist Seth Andrews of the Thinking Atheist with this post. You can check out one of his many takes on the subject of cancer, faith and religious attitudes towards science, health and the world here: youtube.com/watch?v=Qht73MF6C84 and here: youtube.com/watch?v=vM5n8jESUEk&t=115s.


According to the American Cancer Society, evidence of this terrible disease has been found far back into the history of our species, with ancient human skeletons pock-marked with the tell-tale signs of having battled cancer. The Greek physician Hippocrates, from whom we get that famous oath, is believed to have coined the word to describe the cancerous tumors he found in his fellow citizens.

Since I am pretty sure the Greeks were praying to the gods back then, followed by the Christians and the Muslims and the other faiths that have followed, one has to wonder how much longer people have to keep screaming at the top of their lungs before God gets off his fat butt and finally starts wiping out those cancer cells?

Or is it the other way around? After the tens of thousands of dollars of radiation, chemotherapy and proton treatments; after the drugs and supplements to help heal the body and keep it going; the dozens if not hundreds of human specialists and experts on your cancer team; not to mention the thousands of people going back to Hippocrates who have studied and struggled and reached for the stars to find new medicines, new treatments, and new ways to better understand this horrifying disease, do these people really think God deserves the credit? Then why not pray for him to take care of your hospital bill too instead of hitting people up on CaringBridge?

I spoke with a cancer survivor who lost her hand to a nasty case of sarcoma. She originally didn’t want anything to do with the healthcare field because of that experience and others in the hospital. But the knowledge, expertise and caring nature of the nurse practitioners she had by her side through all the struggles inspired her to go into that field.

She donates her time a camp for children battling cancer where they can hang out, eat junk and play outside; you know, be kids for a change. People like here will wipe out all of the cancer cells, not God.

The life expectancy in the United States is a tad under 80 years. That is nearly double the 45-year life expectancy an American citizen had around the turn of the 20th century. According to a data map by FiveThirtyEight, the death rates for cancer have gone from 240 deaths per 100,000 people in 1980 to 192 deaths per 100,000 people in 2014.

That data also shows the death rates from cancer are much higher in the evangelical parts of the southern United States, those places where you would expect more people to be praying to God to eradicate all of the cancer cells. Then again, the Methodists have the only true avenue to God, unless of course, you are a Baptist, and all those competing prayers must be canceling each other out.


Cancer Rates
According to this map by FiveThirtyEight, all those prayers don’t seem to be doing squat to stop cancer in the Bible Belt.


Part of that is due to the millions and billions of dollars that have been raised and funneled into cancer research, coming up with breakthroughs over the past seven decades.

But according to data from nonprofit Giving USA, the majority of charitable dollars went to religion (32%), education (15%), human services (12%), grantmaking foundations (11%), and health (8%) in 2015, the most recent year data was available. Of the top five categories of giving, four times as much money went to the prayer factory (which we know doesn’t work) than went to the cure factory (which we know does).

If you want to help change that statistic, here are three great organizations to donate to: The American Cancer Society Donation Page, The American Breast Cancer Foundation Donation Page, and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society Donation Page.

This appeal to a miraculous God who cures cancer doesn’t just insult the doctors and nurses who stood by your family day in and day out. What about the family, friends and entire communities that help out? The good Christian makes sure to thank God and Jesus for the moral support he provided, but then forget the friends who helped cook, clean, bought drinks and offered shoulders to cry on during the bad days, celebrated on the good days, and organized fundraisers to help provide the tens of thousands of dollars the family needed to cover medical, travel and other costs associated with this struggle.

“I thank my God every day. Even though these are challenging times, I know my God would never give me more on my plate than I could handle.”

“Oh, Betty, I don’t want another seven-layer lasagna, it gives me gas. But it’d be great if you could look after the kids while my husband and I are at the hospital.”

And this is why Atheists face-palm.