Local Government Shouldn’t Be Serving God

The city of Hudsonville, Michigan has this Mission Statement:

missionstatement.JPG

Obviously, the government shouldn’t be “serving God.” If individuals in the government choose to do so, that’s their choice. But the city shouldn’t be taking a position on religion.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation requested that this reference be removed:

The presence of religion in the Mission Statement at a tax-supported city website establishes religion. A city should have no religious “beliefs.” That neutrality is the only way to ensure religious liberty for all citizens–which by definition includes the freedom to disbelieve and the freedom to dissent. We ask that the City immediately remedy this violation by removing references to “God” or religion from its Mission Statement.

Mayor Don Van Doeselaar is denying the request.

In fact, The Grand Rapids Press published an editorial today endorsing the Mission Statement with the God inclusion and supporting the mayor’s decision:

The humble reference to serving God in the City of Hudsonville’s mission statement hardly poses a threat to religious freedom or the Constitution. The sentence simply reflects deeply held community values. Yet a small Wisconsin-based group called the Freedom from Religion Foundation has argued that the mission statement should be changed because it compromises religious neutrality and religious liberty. Leaders in Hudsonville, including Mayor Don VanDoeselaar, should resist those calls.

People opposed to any mention of the almighty in civic life can find plenty of reason to take offense — from school children pledging their allegiance to a nation “under God” to the wealth of references to the divine on public buildings and monuments in the nation’s capital.

The sheer ubiquity of those references is proof that God has not been banished from the public sphere, though he has been marginalized, sometimes too much so.

The Hudsonville mission statement reads, “The city commission and administration of the city of Hudsonville strive to serve God through the strengthening of family and community life and are committed to excellence in providing quality municipal services.”

That’s it. Nobody is being asked to subscribe to a certain set of beliefs or take part in a ritual not to their liking. Nobody is being forced to pray to a foreign deity, or to any deity at all, for that matter. Nobody’s being asked to agree. In fact, in a democracy, dissent is actively encouraged. In defining their mission, city leaders sought to make a statement about value and purpose that reflects their community.

FFRF promptly responded to this in an email to members:

Ironically, the editorial maintains: “Nobody is being asked to subscribe to a certain set of beliefs or take part in a ritual not to their liking.” “Nobody” is apparently a euphemism for Hudsonville’s nonbelieving population, who are indeed being turned into “nobodies”– second-class citizens–via this inappropriate and unnecessary espousal of governmental belief.

They are requesting that you “send a short, succinct e-mail dissenting from this editorial (signing name, full address and phone number if you want this to be considered for publication)” to Ed Golder, Editorial Page Editor.

If you can help the non-religious residents of Hudsonville, please send that email!


[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

  • Lysander

    For crying out loud! Arrrrrgh!

    I’ve got a letter to write…

  • Tim Van Haitsma

    I lived in Hudsonville for few years. Thankfully I moved out. But I am still in West Michigan. It is a scary place sometimes.

  • Kate

    done!

  • http://skepticsplay.blogspot.com/ miller

    The humble reference to serving God in the City of Hudsonville’s mission statement hardly poses a threat to religious freedom or the Constitution. The sentence simply reflects deeply held community values.

    I agree. Mission statements are largely exercises in using buzzwords. Mostly, the sentence simply reflects the community’s deeply held commitment to bigotry and devaluation of the constitution.

  • http://bellesouth.blogspot.com Bellesouth

    I’m just curious – did this protest spark from anyone in the Hudsonville community?

    The sad thing about these types of efforts is that anyone outside the community will be seen as just some godless commies trying to change the town’s way of life.

    I’ve lived in plenty of towns such as the one we see in this post. This local government does not have to answer to anyone to whom it is fiscally or governmentally obliged.

    As much as I hate to sound cynical, I fear these letters would fall on deaf ears (or blind eyes, whatever.)

    Anyway, the only way communities such as this will listen is if they are faced with a lawsuit. Even then, it will result in a town full of bitter people who think that those who fight for religious freedom are really just out to get all Christians in this God-trusting, “Christian” nation.

    I lived in a town that was still bitter years after the ACLU won a lawsuit and declared that all the “Jesus is Lord over (this city)” signs be removed from the right-of-way.

    I don’t know if the best way to change people’s attitude toward religious freedom is to force it upon them or to show them that there are all kinds of people in their community and in their world. Tough subject.

  • Mriana

    Hopefully FFRF does win, because even local gov. should have a separation of Church and gov.

  • Stephen

    I don’t know if the best way to change people’s attitude toward religious freedom is to force it upon them or to show them that there are all kinds of people in their community and in their world. Tough subject.

    It is a tough subject, but I’m sure that both approaches are necessary: use positive approaches where possible, but also legal enforcement for the worst excesses. In between, (harsh) criticism and ridicule also have their part to play.

    Personally I really don’t worry about things like Christmas decorations, and I suspect efforts to get them removed are counter-productive.

    But in this case, where a city council is stating in the opening phrase of its mission statement that its mission is to serve God, it does seem to me that a firm reaction is appropriate. Even a devout Christian who is not irredeemably bigoted would surely consider that the purpose of the council is to serve the people of the city.

    The last sentence is dubious as well. First of all they can’t even manage decent grammar:

    We pledge … to promote the beliefs and convictions … for all residents.

    More importantly, a council has no business promoting beliefs. And are they really going to promote the convictions of atheists? Or just the conviction of atheists?

  • http://heathendad.blogspot.com/ HappyNat

    From the editorial

    Nobody is being forced to pray to a foreign deity, or to any deity at all, for that matter.

    Attaching the word foreign to a diety seems a bit odd to me. It seems to me Gods would be beyond borders/locations. Or is the Christian God is American and Allah et al. are immigrants? :)

  • Jason Sexton

    Email I sent this morning. This type of thinking is very common here in southwest Missouri in the buckle of the bible belt. :(

    Mr. Golder,
    If the town of Hudsonville had replaced god with atheism, homosexuality, black or any of number of other words in their mission statement, people would be marching in the street. It relegates anyone that doesn’t praise god and believe in a two thousand old fairy tale to second hand citizens. Separation of church and state is and must remain a very important item in a free equal society. Below is a clipping from a local town here in southwest Missouri that had done basically the same thing and the results of their ideology.

    Missouri Town Must Drop Christian Fish Logo
    A federal court has ruled that the city of Republic, Mo., must remove a Christian fish symbol, known as an ichthus, from the city seal because it violates church-state separation.
    U.S. Federal Court Judge Russell G. Clark ruled July 9 that the fish, which is also featured on the city’s flags, street signs, stationary and vehicles, must be removed. The matter was so clear, Clark ruled in a summary judgment before a trial.
    “The portrayal of the fish impermissibly excludes other religious beliefs or non-beliefs and – intended or not – depicts Christianity as the religion recognized and endorsed by the residents of Republic,” Clark’s ruling said. “The Republic city seal pervasively invades the daily lives of non-Christians and sends a message that they are outsiders. The Constitution forbids such a result.”
    The Webb v. City of Republic case was brought in early 1998 by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of Jean Webb, a Wiccan and former resident of Republic, who was offended by the religious nature of the local government’s seal.
    Residents of the town raised $35,000 to finance the legal battle, and were represented in the case by the National Legal Foundation, a Religious Right group located in Virginia Beach, Va.
    However, the case will go no further. After a 4-4 deadlock by the Board of Aldermen on whether to appeal, Mayor Doug Boatright broke the tie and voted July 19 to end the controversy. Though Boatright’s decision was unpopular with many in the town of nearly 9,000, local officials were concerned about exorbitant legal costs in a battle they are likely to lose.

    Thank you for your time.

    Jason

  • Old Beezle

    I enjoy how the ‘almighty’ is invoked to help provide municipal services. Is that who I should send my electric bill payment to?

  • http://www.thechristianmanifesto.wordpress.com C.E. Moore

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but state and local governments have always been permitted to be inherently religious if they so desire. The federal government, though not always living up to its own ideals, is not supposed to be religious. But, certain states were created as havens for particular religious outlooks and peoples. Maybe I’m wrong, but this seems to be the case historically and I freely admit that I don’t know what has changed from a legal standpoint that disallows this practice.

  • Ben

    Maybe I’m wrong, but this seems to be the case historically and I freely admit that I don’t know what has changed from a legal standpoint that disallows this practice.

    The Fourteenth amendment extended the Bill of Rights to all other U.S. laws.

    “More concretely, the Equal Protection Clause, along with the rest of the Fourteenth Amendment, marked a great shift in American constitutionalism. Before the enactment of the Fourteenth Amendment, the Bill of Rights protected individual rights only from invasion by the federal government. After the Fourteenth Amendment was enacted, the Constitution also protected rights from abridgement by state leaders, and governments, even including some rights that arguably were not protected from abridgement by the federal government. In the wake of the Fourteenth Amendment, the states could not, among other things, deprive people of the equal protection of the laws. What exactly such a requirement means, of course, has been the subject of great debate; and the story of the Equal Protection Clause is the gradual explication of its meaning.”
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Equal_Protection_Clause

  • http://skeptigator.com Skeptigator

    I’m with BelleSouth, you’ve got to pick and choose your battles and if an outside group like ffrf goes in and starts picking on these small towns there doing more harm than good.

    Changing peoples attitudes towards non-theists is about “changing attitudes” not municipal mission statements. This just creates knee-jerk reactions, that simply solidifies support because people perceive themselves as being attacked.

    I know ffrf says, “On behalf of Hudsonville taxpayers…” but that about as ambiguous as you can get. These kinds of mission statements/decrees or whatever don’t “pick my pocket, or break my leg”. Atheists have a PR problem and this doesn’t help. I’m ranting, I’ll shut up now.

  • Richard Wade

    Although the town is clearly in the wrong constitutionally and legally, I can see the merits of both sides of the question of whether it’s worth it to come in as an outsider to make them clean up their act. On one hand as some Chinese general said long ago, “some towns are not worth taking,” and the resentment and bitterness generated has a cost. On the other hand, small town America is where all the other old prejudices held out long after the rest of the nation had abolished them both in spirit and in law. The rural South would not have finally rid themselves of racist segregation on their own. It took federal intervention in the 1960′s to drag them kicking and screaming into the 20th century. If we pass up another “town not worth taking,” then we’re preserving one more safe haven for this kind of sanctioned bigotry to hide and wait, like a dormant virus holed up in some obscure part of the the body waiting to erupt again.

  • http://atheists.meetup.com/531 Ben

    C.E. Moore, could you please answer my hypotheticals?

    http://friendlyatheist.com/2008/02/10/dueling-billboards/#comment-126316

  • Josh

    where in the constitution does it say anything about the separation of church and state?

  • http://www.thechristianmanifesto.wordpress.com C.E. Moore

    Ben,

    Email me at thechristianmanifesto@gmail.com if you would like to continue a dialogue. I did not originally answer your hypotheticals because it show a classic ignorance of old and new covenant theology in terms of the law. But, if you’d like to go back and forth in ever-increasing emails, that’d be fine. I will devote as much time to it as I have available to me. That way, we can debate on an even keel.

    And I do thank you for the explanation of the Fourteenth Amedment and the debate surrounding it. I will sit down and discuss it with the history department here and think on it.

    C. E. Moore

  • http://heathendad.blogspot.com/ HappyNat

    Really, Josh? *sigh* Don’t tell me just because the actual words “separation of church and state” aren’t in the constitution doesn’t mean the First Amendment doesn’t apply to such situations.

  • josh

    all i’m saying is that it’s not there… and i don’t think that podunk michigan constitutes congress. freedom of religion is the idea that you will not be persecuted for your religion or lack there of. are you really so sensitive that a mission statement harasses you in such a way that you feel it necessary to file a lawsuit? here’s an idea… if you live there, vote for someone else next election year. make it an issue in the political spectrum. if you don’t live there, then why care? political correctness is a drug that we continue to shoot into our veins and pretty soon it will destroy us…. i would 100% be behind you if we were talking about the inquisition here, but we are simply not.


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