FFRF Contests Memphis Council’s Prayers, Chaplain, Goody Bag

News Release and Action Alert

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter of complaint to the Memphis (Tenn.) City Council for opening public meetings with Christian prayers and sanctioning a “Chaplain of the Day” program.

The Foundation’s letter also questions a city Web page with religious statements and the practice of giving a gift or “goody” bag to the council’s Chaplain of the Day.

A Memphis FFRF member alerted the Foundation, which has about 150 Tennessee and 14,000 nationwide, to the situation.

The chaplain program started in 1966, according to the Memphis city clerk. It includes a certificate written like a city proclamation, which is read at a presentation to the clergy officiant. The Foundation has submitted an open-records request for information on what the gift bags contain and their cost to the public.

“The council should not be in the business of regularly recognizing local clergy members through official proclamation and presenting them with gifts,” said Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney. “This action violates the most basic and fundamental principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

A Foundation review of the prayers from January through 2009, makes clear that the invocations are rarely, if ever, nondenominational or nonsectarian, which they must be, according to the Supreme Court. “Seven prayers ended ‘In Jesus’ Name,’ while three ended in a variation thereof such as ‘In Your Name’ or ‘In Your Son’s Name,’ ” said Kratz. Such prayers, she added, impermissibly advance Christianity and alienate nonbelievers and non-Christians.

A Baptist preacher intoned in one prayer that “the ungodly shall perish” (from Psalms). A Church of Christ minister gave a lengthy supplication, which included: “O Lord, how we need your presence and your spirit to take control as never before. These legislative leaders you have allowed to sit at the table of decision now acknowledge the inability within themselves to fix these ills of our society and they now recognize and depend upon your sufficiency.”

The Foundation and its membership oppose any government prayer. “But at minimum we want the Supreme Court’s ruling against sectarian prayer to be enforced,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president.

The letter of complaint also notes a biblical reference from Matthew 5:14 on the city Web site. Addressed to fellow Memphians from the council, it says: “The Bible says a city on a hill cannot be hidden. That’s also true for a city on a bluff. Working together — council members and citizens, business and boards, educators and religious leaders — we can create that shining city by the river.”

“Obvious Christian allusions” on an official city Web site “illegally and inappropriately” promote religion over nonreligion and Christianity over over faiths, Kratz said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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