Eagle Forum Legislative Alerts

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Prayer from Atheists?

Last fall, Huntsville, Alabama, invited an atheist to deliver the opening prayer at a City Council meeting. The Freedom From Religion Foundation had threatened to sue the city because mostly Christians delivered the Council’s meeting prayers. So the City Council prepared a new list of religious leaders that includes Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Christians, and those of other faiths. Somehow, it didn’t occur to the council that they should also invite atheists to pray.

The American Atheists complained, telling the Huntsville City Council that they must include absolutely everybody, even the non-religious, in order to comply with the inclusion rule. The Council agreed to invite Kelly McCauley, a member of the North Alabama Freethought Association. American Atheists called this “a small step in the right direction” and said it would make Huntsville truly inclusive. This is all so ridiculous that it’s laughable. Atheists exclude themselves from prayer by having no God to pray to. What does an atheist even say in a prayer? As the Supreme Court reminded us recently, legislative prayer is a longstanding tradition that reflects our nation’s values and heritage. A prayer from an atheist makes a mockery of that.

I don’t think the atheists who complained wanted to feel included or wanted to pray. Someone who doesn’t believe in a higher power sees no purpose in prayer. This was nothing more than grandstanding, because what they really can’t stand is to see Christians pray. I’ve always found it odd that people who claim they don’t believe in God find it so offensive that other people do. Do we really need to invite the adamantly non-religious to participate in religious activities? They’ve already chosen to exclude themselves from religion. It’s a bizarre definition of inclusion that demands the right to force themselves back in. I hope Christians will wake up and realize that our religious freedom is under attack in America.

Listen to the radio commentary here:


Cuttlefish said...

Although prayer is of course most often used in the context of praying to a god or gods, the definition does include a plea or entreaty to anyone at all who might give aid--Shakespeare, of course, even used it in its original meaning, as a synonym of "ask".

As such, it is perfectly appropriate for an atheist to give an opening prayer or invocation, asking (entreating, pleading, praying) that the citizens and councilors gathered there remember that they are there as part of civic action, as governance, not as a religious gathering, and that their actions (according to the constitution) must not trample the rights of the minority to heed the whim of the majority.

The supreme court has held that the establishment clause must not favor one religion over another, or religion over non-religion (see the "endorsement test", as found in Justice O'Connor's opinion in Lynch v Donnelly). The constitution is thus firmly behind American Atheists in this case; atheists are citizens as much as anyone else, may participate in civic duties as much as anyone else, and excluding them even from the opening prayer sends the message (echoed in your article here) that there is only one meaning of "prayer", and it involves belief in a god or gods.

The atheists in this case are defending the constitution. The lawmakers in this case took an oath to protect and defend that constitution, but instead have instituted a religious test (in defiance of article VI, paragraph 3 of the constitution).

As for your last paragraph... You claim it is atheists who cannot stand to see Christians pray. We atheists see Christians pray all the time; the constitution says you are free to do so, so long as you are not acting as the representatives of the government while you do so. In truth (and in your description of the events here), it is Christians who cannot stand to see atheists pray, and who have excluded them from praying (to their fellow citizens and lawmakers, not to a god) unconstitutionally. I cannot imagine why--there are as many ways to pray as there are religions, and many more besides. The government cannot take sides, though--if one is included, all are allowed, and all must be invited, and welcome.

Dan Henschel said...

A City Council meeting is not a religious event. Atheists have every right to be included in every part of that meeting, including any opening remarks, invocations, or prayers. If this conflicts with your idea of what prayer is, then perhaps it is the prayer that should be excluded from a government event, not non-religious citizens.

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