FFRFer Michael Deanhardt Tackles City Prayer


Michael Deanhardt

The banner news story on page one of the Anderson (S.C.) Independent Mail on April 11, 2005, read: “The Journey from the Altar to Atheism: Anderson’s most prayed-about man explains why he turned away from God.”

Michael Deanhardt, 68, a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation and a retired brick mason, told the Independent-Mail: “Maybe I’m a voice in the wilderness and nobody’s listening.”

Described as “fearless” and “Anderson’s best-known atheist,” Deanhart began his activism in the 1960s, when he integrated a restaurant in Anderson by simply asking to be served along with two black friends. He reminds people some white churches actually posted armed guards if there was a rumor that blacks might attend. The KKK left a stick of dynamite in the ditch of his front yard, and his children were beaten up or taunted for playing with black children. He later won a federal court victory requiring equal treatment for the county’s African-American prisoners.

In the 1970s, he advocated for the rights of textile workers suffering from “brown lung,” the result of inhaling cotton dust.

In the 1990s, he volunteered as an escort for a Greenville abortion clinic, to protect patients from bible-toting protesters.

His latest campaign has been to request the right to give a “secular humanist” invocation before his city council. He made his request on January 8, 2005, in a letter signed “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”

The current practice is to open every meeting with prayer, rotated among the council members. All current city council members are “practicing Christians,” as Mayor Richard A. Shirley wrote Deanhart on Jan. 20, in turning down his request. Shirley wrote that leading the invocation was a “privilege of office.”

The mayor concluded his letter by adding:

“Michael, the bottom line of this argument is simple. If you are right in your atheist beliefs, the City Council is merely wasting thirty seconds of time at each meeting calling upon a higher authority. If you are wrong, however, we would be wasting eternity. I am not ready to take that chance.”

Similarly, the Anderson County Council Chairwoman Gracie Floyd initially refused Deanhardt’s request, but finally did allot him five minutes on the agenda in March. (See Statement.)

Such blanket, unapologetic denials were issued despite a decision by the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in a case taken by a Wiccan in South Carolina last year, which barred overtly Christian invocations at government functions.

That decision has been disregarded by public officials in Anderson, such as County Board of Education Chairman Mike Brock, who prayed on Jan. 10 at a public meeting “in Christ’s name.” The Independent Mail reviewed invocations at city, county and Board of Education meetings in recent months, and found “consistent Christian references.” The mayor has gone so far as to publicly promise to resign should the Supreme Court rule prayer impermissible at public meetings.

“Not only is it unAmerican for government to promote religion. It is rude,” maintains Deanhardt.

“Remember that being part of a majority does not necessarily make you right, just part of a group that thinks alike.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation