One of the ways the members of Turlock’s City Council freely exercise their Christian religion, is with an invocation before their meetings. Until August 13, the invocations often ended “in Jesus’ name.” Freedom of religious expression is protected by the Free Expression Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. This is the same clause protecting freedom of speech, including that of the press.
Represented by Annie Gaylor and Rebecca Kratz, the Wisconsin based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), in a letter sent August 13 to Mayor Lazar and members of the Turlock City Council, argues that such prayer goes beyond free expression to an establishment of religion by the state, breaching the wall between church and state, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.
These clauses, in the same amendment in the Bill of Rights, aim to protect every individual’s freedom of religion from being encroached upon by government. Sometimes the clauses come into conflict, when individuals freely exercise their religion while representing government, thereby establishing religion by the government. The Free Exercise Clause permits Turlock City Council members to freely exercise religion outside of meetings, while the Establishment Clause forbids them to establish their religion while the meetings are in session. This is to make sure that all present at the meetings are respected as equal participants in the political process.
In response to FFRF’s August 13 letter, the council unanimously adopted a new policy on September 22, which decided the voluntary invocations, receiving no compensation, will no longer be listed on the agenda and will be held before the gavel strikes to officially begin the meetings, to “solemnize proceedings of the Turlock City Council”. The individuals to give the invocation will be selected on a rotating basis from every established religious congregation in Turlock with Internal Revenue Service non-profit designation—not just Christian congregations. Such individuals may not be scheduled for consecutive meetings, nor for more than three meetings in a year, and in their invocation they may not promote their own doctrine or criticize doctrines of other faiths.
According to past U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Marsh v. Chambers in particular), such prayers are allowed, but they must be non-denominational and ceremonial. The policy adopted by the Turlock City Council therefore does not conform to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. FFRF objects that even though the council’s invocation is not listed on the agenda, it is still part of the meeting, still establishes religion without representing all religions equally (not required, but also not permitted, by the Supreme Court), and by infringing on the rights of atheists to be free from established religion in a government setting, turns them into “political outsiders of their own community and government” (Kratz).
To follow Supreme Court precedent in making pre-meeting invocations conform to non-denominational, ceremonial requirements, on the one hand, or to instead carry out the recently adopted policy which invites members of even non-Christian faiths to give the invocation, on the other hand, is to give up praying to the Christian God during those prayers, in every instance when following Supreme Court precedent, and in the instance when a non-Christian is giving the invocation, when carrying out the recently adopted policy.
Of course a member may still pray to the Christian God in their own mind, and the group may still meet in their off-time to pray. This would be true whether or not anyone was giving an invocation. The Establishment Clause concerns only the religious behavior of government officials as they are performing duties for the government, not their religious thoughts, and not their off-time.
FFRF is willing to go to court over the issue of religious invocations before city council meetings, but is watching the council's response to their August 13 letter. In the mean-time, the Turlock City Council still prays before meetings.
1. Do you think the Turlock City Council, currently composed of Christians, should pray privately in their minds and collectively in their off-time, to ensure those of other faiths or of no faith are respected as equal participants in the political process, and to keep from compromising their values which include worshipping only the Christian God?
2. Do you think it is relevant that atheism and other secular beliefs are implicitly religious, as concerns making sure all are respected as equal participants in the political process?
Is your church or other group teaching apologetics?
Do you have an apologetics question?
Would you like to share the reasons you believe?