Public Boards Keep on Pushing Prayers

Advocates of prayer in the public square (if you’re thinking Hindus, stop right there) keep pushing to open government meetings with an incantation/invocation seeking divine guidance.

Mayor Peter DiCianni of Elmhurst, Ill., for example, suggested at the Jan. 19 City Council meeting adding an invocation to the regular agenda: “We’re doing God’s work up here, and we may need (prayer).”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation objected in a Jan. 29 letter to the mayor and council, as the Foundation had earlier to city-sponsored prayer by Elmhurst’s neighbor Wheaton.

“In Elmhurst, they’re a captive audience. They have to go to the City Council to discuss earthly and terrestrial matters that are very important to them,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president. “They shouldn’t have a religious test and have to be asked to stand and bow their head to somebody else’s God. It’s very distressing that we have public officials who do not understand our Bill of Rights and think they have tyranny of the majority on matters of personal conscience.”

Nevertheless, on Feb. 1, the council bowed its collective head for the first time in years as Rev. Tony Taschetta of Mary Queen of Heaven Church prayed in earnest. Three council members came late deliberately in order to miss the prayer.

The Elmhurt Press reported that the local League of Women Voters also objected in an open letter to DiCianni: “[T]he League of Women Voters is flabbergasted by your suggestion to open council meetings with prayer. . . . As mayor, you were elected to serve all the citizens of the community and your assertion that ‘all faiths’ would be invited is disingenuous.”

Albany, N.Y.

The Foundation objected in a Feb. 3 letter to a proposal by Albany (N.Y.) Common Council member Anton Konev to replace a moment of silence at council meetings with prayer. 

“Calling upon council members and citizens to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government,” said Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time.”

Konev’s resolution would require council members to lead prayers or have religious leaders from the community do so on their behalf. A decade ago, the council took up the issue of prayer and narrowly voted for the moment of silence currently in place. 

Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, who voted for the losing prayer resolution in 1999, told the Albany Times Union that although she is devoutly religious and believes strongly in the power of prayer, “Just as strongly as I believe in what I believe in, I respect another person’s right not to share that same belief. I think that when we made this compromise (moment of silence) years ago that this was in the best interests of everybody.”

Fresno, Calif.

Please stop using sectarian prayers that frequently invoke the name of Jesus Christ to open public meetings. That was the gist of a Feb. 8 letter sent by the Foundation on behalf of a Fresno, Calif.-area complainant.

The letter, by Foundation Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert, asked Fresno  Mayor Ashley Swearengin and the City Council to stop opening meetings with Christian prayers. 

The Foundation has nearly 2,400 members in California. The Central Valley Alliance of Atheists and Skeptics joined in the action asking the city to cease and desist.

Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor sent a similar letter in December to the City Council and Mayor Pam Iorio in Tampa, Fla.

Gaylor said asking the audience to rise for the prayer amounts to coercion.

“If you don’t rise, you’re stigmatized,” she said.

D.C. Prayer Breakfast

The Foundation officially asked President Obama by letter to disassociate himself from the Feb. 4 National Prayer Breakfast, which has been held since the early 1950s, is sponsored by The Fellowship Foundation, also known as “The Family,” and was originally promoted by Rev. Billy Graham.

The letter by Foundation Co-Presidents Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor also expressed disappointment that Obama invited Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero to attend and speak at the breakfast:

“Your invitation to Zapatero lends the unmistakable appearance that the White House itself is cosponsoring the event, working hand in glove with the ultra-rightwing Christian group, The Fellowship Foundation,” the Found­ation letter said.

“The Constitution provides for a Commander in Chief, not a Pastor in Chief. It is time for the U.S. president and members of Congress to boycott the National Prayer Breakfast and cleanly break with the scandal-ridden Fellowship Foundation, an incubator of religious-right policies. Prayer and religious ritual ought to be a private matter, not a political litmus test.”

Obama ignored the Foundation and made these remarks:

“There is, of course, a need for prayer even in times of joy and peace and prosperity. Perhaps especially in such times prayer is needed — to guard against pride and to guard against complacency. But rightly or wrongly, most of us are inclined to seek out the divine not in the moment when the Lord makes his face shine upon us, but in moments when God’s grace can seem farthest away.”

Freedom From Religion Foundation