As requested by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the city of Chesapeake, Va., is telling clergy who pray before City Council meetings that their prayers must be nonsectarian.
The Foundation sent a letter to Chesapeake Mayor Alan Krasnoff in June that said the prayers offered at the start of council meetings were all sectarian, which is a direct violation of rulings by appeals courts. Foundation attorney Rebecca Kratz noted that "Jesus Christ" was invoked in every prayer during the months of March, April and May 2009. That will no longer be the case if the city enforces its new policy:
"Based on Constitutional interpretations rendered by the United States Supreme Court and the Fourth Circuit of the United States Court of Appeals, the invocation should be nonsectarian with elements of the American civil religion and should offer the members of City Council a time of reflection and encouragement. The prayer should not be used to proselytize or advance any one faith or belief, nor should it be used to disparage any other faith or belief.
"The letters of invitation and confirmation, samples of which are attached, should remind religious leaders to refrain from making references that are specific to any particular religion, denomination or sect or that promote particular religious figures, deities, images or symbols. The invocation should be seen as an opportunity to convey a common message of shared values and ideals derived from our American heritage."
The purpose of invocations, said City Clerk Dolores Moore, "is to invoke divine guidance for the members of the City Council as they conduct public business." A letter to clergy who may participate said the city wants to include all denominations: "No one religion or denomination is preferred over any other, nor should any religion be disparaged. Invocations are welcome, not as an opportunity to advance a particular religion or system of beliefs, but as a time of reflection and encouragement that will be meaningful to the members of City Council and show respect for the rich diversity of beliefs found in Chesapeake.
"In order to find common ground in shared beliefs, the policy asks that the invocation not proselytize, nor reference any particular religious figure, image or symbol. Teachings and prayers should reflect universal values, rather than beliefs unique to a particular religion or recitations from a particular scripture. The invocation should be inclusive and embracive, in accord with the ideals of American culture and heritage."
Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, said the policy may meet the technical legal requirements, but it still violates the spirit of the Constitution and its wall of state-church separation. "What disturbs me is the reference to 'the American civil religion,' which is a contradiction in terms and doesn't exist. If the founders of our god-free Constitution did not need 'divine guidance,' we are at a loss as to why Chesapeake council members need to pray over lapsed liquor licenses and broken sewer mains.
"Our members oppose governmental prayer, period," Gaylor said. "It excludes the 15 percent of the U.S. population that is nonreligious."