"If the Supreme Court won't uphold the Constitution, it's up to us — it's up to you" is the response of the Freedom From Religion Foundation to the high court's ruling May 5 that judicially blessed sectarian prayer at official government meetings.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that governments can not only host prayers, those prayers can be pervasively sectarian: "To hold that invocations must be nonsectarian would force the legislatures that sponsor prayers and the courts that are asked to decide these cases to act as supervisors and censors of religious speech." 572 U.S. 1, 12-13 (2014).
FFRF, the nation's largest association of freethinkers, with more than 20,000 atheist and agnostic members nationwide, is responding to the hostile court ruling by announcing a "Nothing Fails Like Prayer Award." The award will be given to citizens who succeed in delivering secular "invocations" at government meetings.
The individual judged to give the "best" secular invocation will be invited to open FFRF's annual convention with the "invocation," receiving an all-expenses-paid trip to our 37th annual convention at the Los Angeles Biltmore Oct. 24-25 and an honorarium of $500.
FFRF plans to make the contest an annual event until the Greece decision is overturned. All eligible secular invokers will receive a certificate suitable for framing, and FFRF will post the invocation on its website.
FFRF, which submitted an amicus brief against government prayer in the case, was initially founded for the very purpose of protesting government prayer at city and county meetings.
Anne Nicol Gaylor, who coined the adage, "Nothing fails like prayer," and her daughter Annie Laurie, founded FFRF in Wisconsin in order to speak with a more powerful voice when testifying against prayers by the Madison Common Council and Dane County Board in 1976. The city dropped prayers the following year and the county went to rotating opening remarks by county supervisors.
Government prayer continues to rate as one of the most common complaints FFRF receives from its members and members of the public.
FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor notes that despite the approval of sectarian governmental prayer by five Supreme Court justices, there is no requirement for government bodies to open with prayer. Citizen request has stopped the practice of government prayer throughout the country and can continue to do so.
"We'd like to see secular citizens flood government meetings with secular invocations that illustrate why government prayers are unnecessary, ineffective, divisive, embarrassing and exclusionary of the 20-30 percent of the U.S. population today that identifies as nonreligious," Gaylor said.
Although the Supreme Court "blessed" opening prayer as governmental speech, meaning government bodies don't have to permit guest prayers, even the town of Greece has indicated it would consider a guest secular invocation.
FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who suggested the award, notes that many of our nation's most influential founders opposed governmental exercises of religion, including revolutionary Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, who refused in his two terms to issue days of prayer, and James Madison, our fourth president and primary architect of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The goal is to show that government bodies don't need prayer to imagined gods, or religion or superstition, to govern — they need to be guided by reason.
"Government officials need to get off their knees and get to work," added Dan Barker, a former evangelical minister and author of "Godless," who now co-directs FFRF. He has another suggestion: "Be a Paine in the government's Mass."