FFRF protests Iowa Senate’s discriminatory tradition

1Jack R Perry Photography

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter to the Iowa Senate strongly objecting to its invocation practice.

The state Senate regularly welcomes guest clergy to give an invocation before each session. Any person wishing to deliver an invocation must be invited by a senator. While FFRF is not aware of a formal policy barring non-Christians from giving an invocation, all invitees are given the clearly Protestant and problematic title, “Pastor of the Day,” and an overwhelming majority of the invocations have been Christian prayers delivered by Protestant ministers in the name of Jesus Christ.

Last year, Justin Scott, an FFRF member and the director of Eastern Iowa Atheists, delivered a well-received secular invocation to the Iowa House of Representatives. This year, Scott contacted the senator in his district, Craig Johnson, to ask if Johnson would invite him to give a similar invocation to the Senate. Johnson responded that he could no more ask Scott to give an invocation than he could sponsor a bill favoring abortion. Scott reached out to the 49 remaining senators but was turned down by all.

In a letter to then-president of the Iowa Senate Jack Whitver, FFRF protested the practice, emphasizing that prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. FFRF is asking that the Senate focus on the secular business of government and consider abandoning these superfluous invocations altogether.

FFRF pointed out in its letter that opening sessions with Christian prayer undermines the appearance that the Senate acts for the good of all state citizens by excluding the one in five Iowans who are nonreligious.

“The easiest solution is for the Senate to focus on secular civic matters and end the practice of worshiping on taxpayer’s time,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.

However, if the Senate insists on continuing to host invocations before sessions, it must not discriminate against any person wishing to give one. Members of minority religions and nonreligious individuals should be permitted to deliver invocations as well. Under the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, it is unconstitutional discrimination to treat similarly situated persons differently. Treating a nonbeliever who wishes to give an invocation differently from a religious citizen — as was the case in Scott’s experience — equates to discrimination.

“If the Senate chooses to continue its invocation practice, it must open its prayers to all comers, including atheists, agnostics, Humanists, Wiccans and other minority beliefs,” wrote FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara. “This is not only the most inclusive practice, it is the most constitutionally sound option.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 32,000 members across the country, including in Iowa. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism. FFRF is committed to ensuring that nonbelievers are able to deliver secular invocations before legislative bodies.

Photo Source: Jack R. Perry Photography / Shutterstock

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

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