We’ve recently noted our view that the spontaneous decision by Graham’s city council to act on one member’s proposed change in policy (a new paid holiday for city workers, for Veterans Day), brought up at the end of the meeting without any prior discussion and with no notice to the public, was a poor way to conduct the public’s business.
Well, it seems that such an irregular approach, with a total disregard for the public they’re supposed to serve, isn’t restricted to Graham.
This week, it was Mebane, where mayor Ed Hooks began the December 6 city council meeting by reading a two-sentence statement indicating that he was eliminating the opening invocation from the council agenda – not only that night, but for all meetings to come.
He did so with no prior notice to the public.
Another lousy way to handle public policy, we think.
And on a very serious issue: a short invocation of God’s blessings on the council’s deliberations, the city, and its citizens.
We asked the rather obvious question, not answered by the mayor’s short soliloquy, of “why”?
The short answer is “political correctness.” The potentially longer answer is the implied threat of legal action based on one group’s description of the city council’s “unconstitutional invocation practices,” which it raised based on an anonymous complaint from “a concerned Mebane resident.”
It seems that the city received a letter from a Wisconsin-based organization ostensibly dedicated to separation of church and state. However, the organization’s name, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, makes clear its focus is not just separation of religion from government, but its elimination.
To read the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s full letter to mayor Hooks, go HERE
It is based on this questionable summary of world history: “The history of Western civilization shows us that most social and moral progress has been brought about by persons free from religion.”
Their interpretation of American history is equally skewed, claiming that the U.S. “was the first nation to adopt a secular constitution, investing sovereignty in ‘We the People,’ not a divine entity.”
A layman’s definition of the group is provided by the website Wikipedia, which describes the group’s purpose as advocating “for atheists, agnostics, and non-theists” and challenging “the legitimacy of many federal and state programs that are faith-based.”
According to the group’s letter to the city council, “Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive, and the best solution is to discontinue it altogether.”
Two issues: process and substance
We would divide our critique into two parts: first, our strong objection to the unilateral action of the mayor to eliminate a tradition of decades without any notice to the public; therefore no opportunity for public, or council, discussion; and no consideration of whether the council’s prayer tradition actually violates the Constitution, and, if so, whether the opening prayer procedure could be modified to bring it within constitutionally-allowed protections.
Instead, Hooks casually declared the end of decades of history and tradition and substituted what he said would become a new practice of opening the council meeting with a moment of silence.
Apparently council members were aware of the issue (all of the outgoing members had received the same letter, dated November 5, from the Freedom From Religion Foundation), but the public wasn’t.
We also strongly object to the attempt to claim anything other than the fact that the city was succumbing to a legal threat as the justification for the change in policy.
By the mayor’s own description, he consulted with incoming city council member Jonathan White, who held himself out as a devout Christian, desiring to bring his “faith into action,” during his recent campaign for a city council seat.
We are surprised that it was White’s actual position to support the elimination of the prayer and his suggestion to try to camouflage the new policy by putting a positive spin on it.
“I wonder,” White wrote in an e-mail to Hooks that the mayor provided to the newspaper, “if we can avoid painting it [the elimination of the prayer and substitution of a moment of silence] in the negative (avoiding lawsuits, getting complaints, etc.) and elevate it as a positive.”
In fact, it turns out it was White’s suggested language that Hooks read at the beginning of the meeting as the rationale for making the change: “Because of Mebane’s conviction that the diversity of our strongly-held beliefs makes [us] greater, not weaker. And because of our commitment to show respect to all faiths, beliefs and perspectives,” the council’s practice of having an invocation is being eliminated.
In our judgment, White is not off to a very inspiring start of his city council tenure.
Can’t we have some simple, straight-forward honesty from city council members, instead of the deceptive spin of trying to hoodwink the public about this “positive” decision to get rid of a public prayer?
The policy, practice, and tradition of having an invocation/prayer at public meetings
Our second major objection to Monday night’s decision to do away with the invocation at the beginning of the meeting is whether, in fact, the city’s approach – of having the mayor or various of the five city council members – deliver the opening prayer is unconstitutional.
The city’s attorney made quite clear – to Hooks ahead of the meeting and in his response to this newspaper’s publisher’s questions during the meeting and in a subsequent interview – that he has concluded that the methodology used is, in fact, not allowable.
A word about Lawson Brown, the city’s attorney. In our judgment, he is an excellent attorney. [Editor’s Note: In full disclosure, this newspaper’s publisher has hired Brown in the past (he also works in private practice) for personal legal matters.]
Nonetheless, we think such a significant change in policy calls for at least some debate and discussion, and perhaps some input from one or more attorneys whose specialty is First Amendment law.
Brown’s willingness to so unilaterally jettison the invocation is at odds with the interpretations of dozens of other municipal and county attorneys whose jurisdictions have the same approach to invocations at their meetings.
Here’s the pattern we’ve seen over the past several decades: there’s a constant assault of every approach that any government undertakes that seeks to acknowledge, pray to, or otherwise seek the blessings of almighty God.
Local governments have tried various methods:
· Inviting local clergy to deliver an opening prayer; in areas such as the South, where most clergy are, in fact, Christian, that is considered objectionable, even unconstitutional, especially when the local government decides who to invite to their meetings to deliver the prayer, especially if they only invite Christian clergy;
· Having members of the elected board deliver the prayer had been a method upheld at one point, but now, according to the Fourth Circuit (under which North Carolina falls) is prohibited, particularly when, as in Mebane, all of those delivering the prayer are Christian and/or use Christian/Biblical terminology.
Here it turns out is where one of the problems lies in Mebane, although we had not particularly noticed it or thought it a problem, much less a constitutional one. Hooks explained in an interview with the newspaper that, as a practical matter, either he or councilman Tim Bradley have often, indeed almost always, delivered the invocation – because four other members of the council (Jill Auditori, Sean Ewing, Everette Greene, and Patty Philipps) have typically demurred from doing so.
Hooks’ decision to eliminate the prayer adds Mebane to Elon’s board of aldermen and the local school board as the only local elected boards that do not start their meetings with an invocation of God’s blessings. The school board uses a moment of silence, Elon nothing at all.
Another derivative of Mebane’s capitulation to the Wisconsin group will, undoubtedly, be more scrutiny and objection to other local jurisdictions that still start their meetings with prayer, usually from their own members.
One of the few approaches upheld consistently is the hiring of a chaplain to open each and every session of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate.
In North Carolina’s General Assembly, individual members of the state house and state senate typically open their body’s deliberations with prayer.
Yet that same approach is considered unacceptable in Mebane; although we acknowledge there is certainly more diversity among 50 state senators and 120 state house members than among six Mebane city council members.
But here’s the problem on the horizon. It will be only a matter of time, we predict, before even a moment of silence is challenged as unconstitutional, because it will be viewed as a substitute for avowed prayer or acknowledgement of God.
Those challenges have already been mounted in schools that attempted that route, after school prayer was banned in the 1960’s, and we suspect groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation will seek to root out every vestige of anything remotely detouring, even for a moment, away from an exclusively-secular approach.
The late mayor Glendel Stephenson – who often delivered the prayer at the start of city council meetings – was most well known for saying, at many public events in his city, “It’s a great day to be in Mebane.”
Unfortunately, that couldn’t be said Monday.