Georgia Statehouse over-the-top sermon & invocation disquiets FFRF

A recent fire-and-brimstone sermon — coupled with an ultrareligious invocation — delivered on the Georgia Statehouse floor has alarmed the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

On March 26, state Rep. Trey Kelley invited his father, Doyle Kelley, to be “chaplain of the day.” Several concerned citizens reported Kelley’s remarks to FFRF (which the state/church watchdog has viewed).

The elder Kelley spoke for nearly 12 minutes. He first delivered a 10-minute long sermon that discussed how people who do not adhere to his particular brand of religion will be tortured in hell for all eternity: “You want to hear it in Baptist terms? Seven million people that are lost are dying and on their way to Hell.” He also read from the bible, instructing the legislators that they should act “in the name of the Lord Jesus.” He told the legislators that “a person can only experience true peace as they come to know Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior.” He solicited “amens” from the audience.

In short, this was a church sermon, something Kelley admitted during his remarks. Only after such a homily did Kelley begin his invocation. But he still stuck to his proselytizing, disparaging and damnation-threatening theme. He instructed legislators to “look to” God, not to fellow humans. He told legislators that they needed to “do everything to bring honor and glory to [God].” He tied the prayer back to his sermon, revisiting and ended with the threat of hell: “I thank you once again for your son, Jesus Christ, for the one who died on the cross for my sins and for the sins of the people in this room, because of our belief in him we can have everlasting life. God, I’ve heard the saying, ‘Eternity is too long to be wrong.’ So God, let us be right about where we are going to spend eternity. And it’s in Jesus’ name I pray. And all God’s people this morning said, ‘AMEN!’”

There are at least two significant problems here, FFRF points out. First, the House dais cannot be used as a pulpit. This sermon was absolutely unconstitutional. The U.S. Supreme Court has said time and again that the First Amendment “mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.” Turning over the full power and imprimatur of the Georgia House to Kelley to promote his personal religion violated this clear command. While the Supreme Court has permitted legislative invocations, it has not permitted legislative sermons — nor has any other court.

Second, while legislative invocations have been deemed constitutional, the Supreme Court made it clear that not all invocations are created equal. Those invocations are not a blank check, but strictly limited. They cannot be proselytizing or disparaging, and the permission for an invocation doesn’t equate to a permission to deliver a sermon. This invocation, which referenced the sermon it directly proceeded, flatly violated this narrow rule.

“Kelley’s sermon and his invocation (1) denigrated and threatened those who were not of his religion; (2) threatened damnation for those, and (3) preached conversion,” FFRF Director of Strategic Response Andrew L. Seidel writes to Georgia House Speaker David Ralston. “In other words, his was precisely the kind of prayer the Supreme Court was worried about.”

Rather than imposing specific rules about the content of legislative prayers, the House should discontinue the prayers altogether, FFRF advises. They are unnecessary. And nothing would stop any individual member from personally praying.

“There’s no reason to start legislative business off with an invocation,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “Legislators should instead straightaway get down to the business of improving our well-being in this wonderfully secular nation.”

In his sermon, Kelley discussed his job as a public high school football coach. Given that he abused his position as chaplain of the day to promote his personal religion, FFRF is concerned that he’s abusing his position at a public school, too, and is currently investigating.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit with over 31,000 members and several chapters across the country, including more than 500 members and a chapter in Georgia. FFRF’s protects the constitutional separation between state and church, and educates the public on matters relating to nontheism.

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.

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