FFRF helps ensure Mich. county invocations open to everyone — including satanists

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation has taken action to ensure that all residents of a Michigan county are treated on par with Christian prayer-givers.

The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners, which opens its board meetings with invocations, agreed that a member of The Satanic Temple could deliver an invocation at its April 23 meeting. On March 21, Commissioner Jacob Bonnema claimed, however, that “satanists” shouldn’t be allowed to do this because it violates “Christian values.”

In a Facebook post, Bonnema urged: “When Jesus taught us to pray for the fulfillment of God’s will on Earth as it is in Heaven, I am convinced that this is not His will for us to accommodate the requests of a ‘satanist’ on Earth, especially not within the context of our board meeting. … The Satanic Temple’s actions are a waste of our valuable time with their frivolous antics. If they choose to argue that a refusal to grant them the opportunity to deliver the invocation infringes upon their freedom of speech or religious liberty, I am prepared to face any potential legal challenge.”

Singling out a religious denomination by denying them an opportunity to deliver an invocation despite allowing similarly situated Christian leaders to offer invocations amounts to a clear violation of the First Amendment, FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line reminded the board. If a government entity like Ottawa County chooses to engage in prayer before its meetings, it may not constitutionally restrict opportunities to give invocations to the faith traditions of which the county approves.

Secular and satanic invocations must be treated the same as Christian prayers, FFRF emphasized. The Supreme Court addressed the issue of legislative prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014) in which it identified several important elements in the town’s invocation practice that, taken together, made certain that the practice did not impermissibly advance one religion over others or promote religion over nonreligion. The Establishment Clause thus requires that an atheist, agnostic, non-Christian or member of The Satanic Temple (a group that does not believe in a literal Satan) be treated the same as someone who wants to deliver a Christian prayer.

FFRF urged the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners to uphold the constitutional rights of all residents of Ottawa County by allowing invocations from any resident regardless of personal religious beliefs — or better yet, to eliminate the practice entirely.

FFRF’s appeal didn’t go into a void. It has received a response from Ottawa County Board Chair Joe Moss acknowledging that “board leadership prioritizes freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and religious freedom.” FFRF is confident this response indicates that members of The Satanic Temple, other religious minorities and the nonreligious will be permitted to deliver invocations in Ottawa County.

“This controversy shows the divisiveness and folly of government bodies getting into the religion business,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “County commissioners should concentrate on terrestrial, not celestial, matters, and pray on their own time and dime. However, if they’re going to insist on injecting religion into governmental meetings, they must observe the law and permit all-comers.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with over 40,000 members across the country, including more than 1,000 members in Michigan. Our purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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