Sand Springs, Okla., a city near Tulsa, has become embroiled in a familiar state/church controversy — a resident has asked the city council to stop praying on government time, but the mayor and council members have refused to stop these mostly Christian prayers.
The Sand Springs Leader reported on Aug. 3 that Beau McElhattan, our complainant and a former Sand Springs resident who now lives in Tulsa, contacted the mayor, the council and the newspaper to ask that the council's prayerful practice cease. McElhattan told the Sand Springs Leader, "We all need to live together. . . . I don't think it's the government's place to endorse one religion over another like that."
FFRF Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert commented to press, "As the country becomes more diverse, these prayers are becoming more and more problematic."
On Aug. 7, the Leader reported that the council would not discontinue prayer. In a letter to McElhattan and the Leader, Mayor Mike Burdge said,
"[C]itizen's first amendment rights are not in jeopardy nor have they been violated based on the following reasons:
We are not members of congress.
We are not respecting the establishment of any religion above another.
We are not prohibiting the free exercise of it."
(In case you need a refresher, the First Amendment to the Constitution says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," but has since passage of the 14th amendment has applied to all branches of government.)
The 'Good Part'
Douglas Parfait, of Slidell, La., caught wind of these goings-on and sent a letter of his own to the council and the Leader. Parfait told each council member, "As a private citizen, you do have the right of course to worship whatever make-believe idol that you conjure in your brain. . . . However, you cannot practice any religion while conducting official government business."
James D. Rankin, council member at large, took it upon himself to respond on behalf of the entire city council. His letter is much too long to copy in full, but it is well worth a read if you're looking for a laugh!
Rankin does not make many legal arguments in his letter, instead addressing Parfait personally. He says, "You have a faith as well, certainly in a negative aspect from mine, but a faith nonetheless. I should mention that I am a born again, blood bought Christian. It takes just as much faith to believe in no god as it does to believe in God."
He goes on to critique evolution: "It would be amiss of me if I did not witness to you about your beliefs. I am an educated person [he holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine from Oklahoma State University] . . . You would have me to believe that by chance a carbon atom and some nitrogen atoms and hydrogen atoms got together to make a protein . . . and went on to create the first living cell which then by evolution turned into all the species of plants, animals, insects, etc that live on this planet. Wow, that notion is pretty silly don't you think."
According to Rankin, being elected to the Sand Springs City Council is analogous to being elected to the pulpit: "If you care to move to our city, take up residence, and get elected to the city council, then when it comes your turn for invocation you can declare your beliefs as you wish."
Rankin concludes with a prayer: "Let the stores and jobs that we have in our community now be blessed and strengthened. I ask Lord that all of this be done because you are a Sovereign God who loves to show grace and mercy to the humble that will seek your face."
Let Council Member Rankin and the rest of the council know that prayer before official meetings is always exclusionary and unnecessary! Pet owners may wish to express concern over the thought of a veterinarian who rejects the entire basis of modern biological science.
More links relating to prayer in Sand Springs can be found in the August archives of FFRF in the News on our website.
Action Alert by Eleanor Wroblewski
Council Member James D. Rankin
You can find contact information for other members of the council here.
Sand Springs Leader
Letters to the Editor
303 N. McKinley
Sand Springs, OK 74063
Web form here.