Lauryn Seering

Lauryn Seering

%250 %America/Chicago, %2017

FFRF denounces Maine Senate censorship

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation is denouncing the Maine Senate's censorship of a humanist invocation.

Thomas Waddell, head of FFRF Maine, worked with state Sen. Shenna Bellows to deliver the opening invocation before the Maine State Senate. This request was initially approved by the secretary of the Senate, with Waddell scheduled to give an invocation before the Senate on May 30. Waddell delivered a humanist invocation before the Maine House earlier this year. Waddell's scheduled Senate invocation was suddenly cancelled, supposedly because of its content and length. (The remarks can be viewed in the attached PDF.) 

Waddell is being forced to meet requirements that others are not. Waddell reports that no other person selected to give the opening invocation must adhere to these unwritten requirements. The Maine Senate's requirement that Waddell submit his remarks for review and approval violates the U.S. Constitution on a number of counts. First, disparate application of rules based on perception of Waddell's views on religion is illegal. Second, when the government allows invocation speakers to deliver remarks, it cannot censor or approve invocations based on their viewpoint.

"Government officials cannot 'act as supervisors and censors of religious speech' because doing so 'would involve government in religious matters to a far greater degree than ... [either] editing or approving prayers in advance [or] criticizing their content after the fact,'" to quote the U.S. Supreme Court, FFRF Managing Staff Attorney Rebecca Markert writes to Maine Senate President Michael Thibodeau. "As a government official, you cannot dictate what is said or not said by prayer givers." 

If the Senate insists on continuing to host prayers at public meetings, it must not discriminate against any person wishing to give an invocation, FFRF asserts. The nonreligious and members of minority religions should be permitted to deliver invocations, as well.

Under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, it is discriminatory to handle similarly situated persons differently. Treating an atheist or nonbeliever who wishes to give an invocation differently from a religious citizen constitutes discrimination.

FFRF reminds the Maine State Senate that the state/church watchdog group is committed to ensuring that nonbelievers are able to deliver secular invocations before legislative bodies. In May 2016, FFRF sued the congressional House Chaplain for refusing to allow its Co-President Dan Barker to deliver the invocation before the House of Representatives as a guest chaplain. FFRF, with the ACLU and Americans United, is also suing a Florida county over persistent rejection, in violation of the U.S. and Florida Constitutions, of atheists, humanists and other nontheists who want to deliver solemnizing messages to start meetings.

FFRF insists that the Maine Senate immediately approve Waddell's request and that he be invited back to give his remarks without delay.

"The Maine Senate is supposed to represent all citizens of the state," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "It cannot act in an exclusionary manner toward a certain group of Mainers."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization representing more than 29,000 nonreligious members and chapters across the country, including many members and a chapter in Maine.

1claysealGod400The Freedom From Religion Foundation is insisting that a Florida county commissioners' board cease starting its meetings with a prayer.

A concerned local resident contacted FFRF to report that the Clay County Board of County Commissioners opens its meetings with commissioner-led prayers. These prayers are specifically Christian, including language such as "in the name of Jesus," "dear Heavenly Father," etc. Commissioners ask residents to participate in these sectarian prayers by bowing their heads or joining hands.

"Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive," FFRF Legal Fellow Ryan Jayne writes to Clay County board members. "The board ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion by scheduling, hosting, or conducting governmental prayers. Citizens, including Clay County's nonreligious citizens, are compelled to come before it on important matters"

To start with, the prayers exclude the 23 percent of Americans who are not religious. It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to be required to make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising or praying) or else to display deference or obeisance toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe, but which their county commissioners clearly do. It is inappropriate and coercive for board members to direct meeting attendees to rise or otherwise show deference to their invocations.

Plus, local government officials should not be in the business of writing and offering prayers themselves. In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court decided Greece v. Galloway, in which it only approved opening a neutral forum for others, including non-Christians and atheists, to give invocations.

And, importantly, the United States was founded in part by refugees seeking freedom from government dictation of religion. Our nation is based on a godless Constitution, whose only references to religion in government are exclusionary. The framers of the Constitution did not find it necessary to pray during the four-month Constitutional Convention. Why it is necessary, then, for the Clay County Board of County Commissioners to pray over liquor licenses or sewers?

In order to demonstrate the Board of County Commissioners' respect for the diverse range of religious and nonreligious citizens living in Clay County, FFRF urges it to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending the practice of hosting prayers at its meetings. Board members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers' time.

"Governmental public piety is not only unconstitutional, it is also hypocritical," says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. "None other than Jesus, in whose name the county commissioners pray, stated this in the Sermon on the Mount."

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 29,000 nonreligious members and chapters all over the country, including more than 1,400 in Florida and a state chapter, the Central Florida Freethought Community. FFRF's purpose is to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church.

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