The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) is insisting that a Minnesota city end its continuous endorsement of Christianity.
A resident of Columbia Heights reported to FFRF that during a city council meeting last month, Mayor Donna Schmitt issued an unconstitutional proclamation designating May 1 as the official date of the Columbia Heights “Interfaith Prayer Breakfast.” The order called upon “all citizens to join in quiet reverence and dedication as stated in the Declaration of Independence.” The breakfast was held at John P. Murzyn Hall — which is owned and operated by the Columbia Heights Recreation Department — and tickets were sold by the City Hall administration office.
FFRF wrote to Mayor Schmitt on April 27 warning the city that its hosting and coordination of the prayer breakfast poses serious constitutional concerns.
“The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing, advancing or promoting religion,” FFRF Legal Fellow Colin McNamara stated. “Therefore, it is illegal and inappropriate for the city to host, organize, support, or otherwise promote a patently religious event like a prayer breakfast.”
McNamara points out that even an “interfaith” prayer breakfast sends the message to citizens that the city prefers religion over nonreligion.
FFRF was also informed that the city council schedules prayers at the beginning of each of its meetings, usually delivered by invited local clergy. Every meeting has reportedly begun with a Protestant Christian prayer delivered by representatives from six different religious organizations. On two occasions, when the invited pastor was unable to attend, Councilman Bobby Williams delivered the prayer from his seat at the City Council’s table. The majority of the prayers have been explicitly Christian, invoking the name of Jesus Christ and concluding with “amen.”
FFRF is requesting that the city end its prayer during government meetings, which are unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. Sectarian prayers exclude the 22 percent of Minnesotans who are not religious. Furthermore, FFRF highlights that it is intimidating for nonreligious citizens to attend a public meeting and be required to either make a public showing of their nonbelief or show deference to a religious sentiment they do not believe in.
While the best solution is to discontinue the invocations, FFRF notes that if the city does continue to host prayers at public meetings, nonreligious and members of minority religions must be permitted to deliver invocations as well.
"A local civil body ought not to lend its taxpayer-funded time to religion by inviting factional religious leaders to give prayers," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "The City Council must either end this practice or establish a clear policy that does not discriminate against any nonreligious or minority religious citizens wishing to deliver an invocation."
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 33,000 members and 20 chapters across the country, including over 600 members and two chapters in Minnesota. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters related to nontheism.