Why is the Sand Springs, Oklahoma City Council Praying to Jesus Before Meetings?

Usually, when city councils want to pray before a meeting, they’ll get around the legal problem by having an “invocation.” It may be “non-denominational,” but usually, you know it’s the Christian god being referred to. It’s a loophole in the system and some city councils love to exploit it.

In Sand Springs, Oklahoma, however, they’re not even bothering with the subtleties. Forget non-denominational prayers. Their invocation prayers are directly to Jesus.

Beau McElhattan not only attended a meeting to witness this firsthand, he obtained cassette tapes of the meetings — yes, those cassette tapes — then digitally converted them and put them on YouTube so we could all hear the Jesus-loving invocation prayers for ourselves.

In one invocation from May 9th, 2011, you hear the phrases “In Jesus’ name,” “Father,” and “Amen.”

No doubt this is a Christian prayer. In other words, Muslims and atheists and Jews and Hindus are not welcome in Sand Springs, where prayers are not confined to churches and private homes.

Are these bad people? Not really.

Should they be doing this? Not at all. Not in this setting.

Is it a violation of church/state separation? Yes.

Do they know it’s a violation? Who knows.

Beau sent Mayor Mike Burdge a letter explaining the problem and asking him to put a stop to the Christian-only invocations.

No response yet.

But if the videos start appearing in other places, maybe the pressure will mount…

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Basementmatt

    To answer your headline: Because no one’s there after the meetings.

  • gski

    When I first noticed how many city
    councils and other politicians did this, I was surprised that so many
    did not believe in the constitution. Now I realize they use the
    constitution just like the bible, cherry picking those parts they
    like and ignoring those parts they don’t.

  • Beau McElhattan

    You’re right when you say they’re not bad people.  They really are good people.  They just need to be reminded occasionally that there are rules.  Thanks for posting.

    • Cindy

      Actually, most of them are really bad people.  I’ve been stuck here since I was a teen moved here by ignorant parents brainwashed by evilgelical family members.  Sand Springs is really a full on cult.  In September, someone was going door to door passing out KKK fliers here.  It is a horrible place.  I am a few years from paying off my house and I can’t wait to get out of here.  It isn’t just bad for people of other religions or no religion.  It is bad for nice people.  The people here are not normal.  That is why the population has not changed at all for decades. 

  • Barb

    I didn’t believe that things like this really happened… until we moved to Oklahoma for two years… 

    Saying “Separation of Church & State” in OK is full-on cussing; F-Bomb status. They truly, truly believe themselves to be upholding the last bastions not only of their faith but of our country.  The shock of it never wore off. We left. 

    • Aleena051985

      I escaped about 6 months ago.  I know the feeling

    • Cindy

      It’s horrible, isn’t it?  My life was ruined being moved here as a teen.  I should have run away and gone back home.  Now, with the cost of living, I am stuck here.  I DO hope to get out of Sand Srpings, though.  It is one of the horrid little underbelly towns.

      By the way, a couple of years ago, they decided they were going to get a Lowes to come to Sand Springs.  The city used eminent domain to get rid of 90% of the  African American population.  The only nice people here!  They did it.  But a pastor of a church on the property refused to leave and won that battle.  Lowes never made it here, and that church has the biggest parking lot ever.

  • http://www.raisingfreethinkers.com Bee

    Thanks for speaking up about this Beau! I live in Sand Springs. I had no idea this was going on.

    • Beau McElhattan

      No problem. Since you live in Sand Springs, it’d be even better if they heard from you as a citizen of that town and maybe some of your friends that live there.

      As I currently live in Tulsa, I suppose my opinion holds less weight to them, even though I plan on moving there next year or so.

      • mkb

        I’m not from Sand Springs but my grandmother lived and taught school there for many years and Charles Page is my great, great uncle and it saddens me that the City Council is doing this.

        • Ericbradshaw9

          Although I haven’t done the research, I agree that there is probably legal precedent to no prayer in a public meeting. However, my personal belief is that it is not a big deal. I am an agnostic leaning towards atheist and a resident of ok for about 7 years. As a reporter sitting in on these meetings, I did not take part in the prayer but was not bothered by it. I find it mildly endearing as part of the cultural landscape of Oklahoma.

          • Beau McElhattan

            Where were the meetings you sat in on?

  • Daniel H.

    ” In other words, Muslims and atheists and Jews and Hindus are not welcome in Sand Springs”

    How does that follow? It doesn’t.

    And this isn’t unconstitutional in the least. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” It isn’t Congress, it isn’t making a law, and it’s a general Christian prayer, not a religious establishment.

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5Q5YZG6MVFM234ICQ3JRFWMZ44 Nah

      Daniel, that is not how the Establishment Clause is decided. It isn’t restricted to Congress and laws. Are you familiar with the Lemon Test?

      The government’s action must have a secular legislative purpose;
      The government’s action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion;
      The government’s action must not result in an “excessive government entanglement” with religion.

      Those are the only three issues that matter.

      • Daniel H.

        Not familiar with the “lemon test.”

        But it sounds pretty arbitrary. If those are the three issues that matter, I really think the establishment clause should be amended, because what is address is Congress and laws. It doesn’t say anything about city councils, presidents, judges, governors, or religious actions like prayer. The intention of the amendment was to prevent the establishment of a national church like the Church of England. If the intention was to prevent prayer at a city council, the founders could not have been less clear.

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_5Q5YZG6MVFM234ICQ3JRFWMZ44 Nah

          You may feel that it is arbitrary but it is the defacto standard (unless you’re a hack like Scalia or Thomas) for how courts decide this matter, as laid out by the Supreme Court in Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971. If you are interested in, and wish to comment on, church and state issues, then you should become familiar with the status of American law. The Constitution is only the outline for how our government runs, there are many laws and court decisions that fill in the gaps.

          • Daniel H.

            I know how it’s been applied. It’s an interpretive issue, sure. I guess I’m seeing the right of (elected) City Council members to pray at their meetings as something the Constitution protects much more than it prohibits. They can always be voted out if the city public really has a problem with it.

            • Beau McElhattan

              Oh please. City council members are supposed to represent ALL citizens regardless of their beliefs. Just because Christianity is the majority here doesn’t give them the right to impose that on me in their official capacity as a councilor.

            • Anonymous

              The Bill of Rights is there to protect minorities. Not the imagined “rights” of a tyrannical majority. Maybe if you were part of a minority religion, you might understand that.

              There is no right to pray in public. Especially when the praying is done and sanctioned by political officials who thus endorse those views.

              • Justin

                There is a right to pray in public, guaranteed by the same 1st Amendment that makes these prayers a no-no.  Every one of those council members may exercise his or her right to pray, but, in the case of a meeting already called to order, having an established prayer is an instance of government advancing a religion.

    • Curt Cameron

      Daniel H, the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution extends the rights people have from the federal government, to the state governments (and therefore to cities). The First Amendment says that the government at the federal level can’t favor any religion; the 14th extends that to the states/cities.

      • Daniel H.

        Curt, the First Amendment says Congress (or city councils, whatever), can’t make a law. That goes well beyond “favoring.” Having a prayer to Jesus isn’t legislation. In fact if the council members themselves are Christians, prohibiting them from praying would be equally if not more in violation of the amendment than letting them pray, because it also says “nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

        • Anonymous

          Look at how the First Amendment has been interpreted throughout the 20th century. There are literally dozens of  court decisions that prohibit a lot more religious activity in public than just making laws. Most notably things like prayer and religious studies in schools.

          Free exercise of religion was supposed to mean that people can worship whoever they want without being persecuted solely for that. It was never meant to be a license to whatever you want or harass other people. You can pray at home and in your church and no one will say anything about it.

          Or how about you simply follow what Jesus said?

          “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for
          they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners
          to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward
          in full.
          But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your
          Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in
          secret, will reward you.” — Matthew 6:5-6

          • Daniel H.

            A city council prayer hardly counts as “harassment.”

            Jesus is addressing prayer for show, not genuine public invocation, which he himself sometimes did.

            • Anonymous

              Prayer before government functions is nothing but show. Just slimy politicians trying to prove what good little Christians they are because they wouldn’t be elected otherwise.

              If they want “genuine” prayer they can do so in a church

            • James B

               It can be  intimidation if you aren’t Christian.

              • James B

                Sorry hit post too soon. Since the government is supposed to represent all of it’s citizen, not just one the members agree with, praying to a deity  you don’t believe in can be intimidating. Since the council member  are part of the government, by praying to a specific deity they are endorsing that religion in violation to the U.S. Constitution.

        • http://happycat.pip.verisignlabs.com/ Chris aka Happy Cat

          Great.  The joys of moving to Patheos: trolls asserting the entitlement of religion.  Yes, we must observe every letter of the Constitution without regarding the ideas and spirit those words were meant to uphold.  The only interpretations that count are those that protect said religious entitlement! /snark

          This type of thing jolts me from any fatheist accommodationism like a splash of icy water in my face.

          If only there were alternatives **cough cough  FreethoughBlogs cough** .  I doubt Hemant would get the pay he deserves at any other blog sites, though.

          *Big Gay Sigh*

        • Curt Cameron

          Daniel, no one is preventing the individual council members from praying. 

          What the council can’t do, is endorse Christianity by having exclusively Christian prayers as part of the official meetings. The intent of the establishment clause is to keep the government from endorsing any religion. Since the 1860s, this applies to the states as well as to the federal government.

          The key is what individuals can do, and what the government is allowed to do. An official prayer is action by the government, which is restricted.

    • Barb

      It becomes impossible to defend this as “a general Christian prayer” when the speaker specifically prays, out loud, with the meeting in session, for the council members to be guided in their decisions by Jesus & also that they make themselves “attentive” to God’s instruction. In leading this prayer the speaker establishes that he & the rest of the council feel they *should* be looking to the Bible for guidance (as opposed to the laws of our country).  

      You only quoted the first half of the establishment clause here, there is also this little  part about the government (in general, which would include this council) not asserting a preference to one religion over any others…
      Then there’s the free exercise clause; if they establish that the city council is all Christian & will be using their religion to guide their decisions, how is anyone else free to do anything that would conflict with Christianity?  

      There’s no need to pick through precedents, or “interpretations”; the violations are obvious here. 

    • http://www.eurovisionamerica.com/ Michael Gordon

      The First Amendment isn’t interpreted in a vacuum. You’re correct in that the Bill of Rights did not initially apply to the state. The Reconstruction Amendments, particularly the Fourteenth Amendment, changed that situation. By the late 1940s, it was clear that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporated most of the Bill of Rights guarantees to the states, forbidding the states, and any geopolitical subdivisions thereof, from engaging in the behavior that the Bill of Rights forbade the federal government from conducting. The Establishment Clause was incorporated clearly in Everson v. Bd. of Educ., 330 U.S. 1 (1947), where Justice Black said that “[n]either a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither
      can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one
      religion over another. . . . Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly,
      participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and
      vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment
      of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between
      Church and State.’” Id. at 15-16.

      Everson does little to establish any standards we can use to evaluade the Sand Springs, Oklahoma City Council’s actions. Other commentors suggest we use the Lemon test, but the Lemon test isn’t a very good test to use either. “Like some ghoul in a late-night horror movie that repeatedly
      sits up in its grave and shuffles abroad, after being repeatedly killed
      and buried, Lemon stalks our Establishment Clause
      jurisprudence once again . . . . Over the years, however, no fewer than
      five of the currently sitting
      Justices have, in their own opinions, personally driven pencils through
      the creature’s heart (the author of today’s opinion repeatedly), and a
      sixth has joined an opinion doing so.” Lamb’s Chapel v. Center
      Moriches Union Free Sch. Dist.
      , 508 U.S. 384, 398 (1993)
      (Scalia, J., concurring). The Supreme Court uses
      Lemon when they want to and ignore it when they
      don’t. It’s not something we can depend on.

      That, of course, doesn’t solve the problem here. Legislative prayer has a different standard, which comes from Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). In Marsh, the Nebraska State Legislature paid a Presbyterian minister to open its sessions with a prayer. The Court, Burger, C.J., found that the practice was constitutional because of the long history of legislative prayer, dating from the First Continental Congress, and that the clergyman did not advance the beliefs of any particular church. Id. at 793-94.  The prayers were “nonsectarian,” and all elements of Christianity were removed. Id. at 793 n.14.

      An extremely recent case in the Fourth Circuit (Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina) sheds some light on this issue. In Joyner v. Forsyth County, No. 10-1232 (July 29, 2011), the Fourth Circuit considered the invocations delivered before the Forsyth County Commissioners’ meetings. “[T]he prayers frequently contained references to Jesus Christ; indeed, at least half of the prayers offered between January 2006 and February 2007 contained concluding phrases such as ‘We pray this all in the name under whom is all authority, the Lord Jesus Christ,’ ‘[I]t’s in Jesus’ name that we pray[,] Amen,’ and ‘We thank You, we praise You, and we give
      Your name glory, and we ask it all in Your Son Jesus’ name.’” Id., slip op. at 6-7. The Fourth Circuit recognized the difference between general Establishment Clause jurisprudence and legislative prayer jurisprudence. Id., slip op. at 10 (“At its core, this is not a case about the Establishment Clause in general, but about legislative prayer in particular. This distinction is critical, for legislative prayer lies at the heart of two intersecting realities.”).  The court decided that it can “approv[e] legislative prayer only when it is nonsectarian in both policy and practice.” Id., slip op. at 15. Because “[a]lmost four-fifths of the prayers contained . . . references” to “Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, or Savior,” the prayers were not nonsectarian in practice, and were thus unconstitutional, taken as a whole. Id., slip op. at 17. While this case is not binding on Oklahoma, which is in the Tenth Circuit, it is illuminative of typical legislative prayer jurisprudence. (The Fourth Circuit also made analogies to its two other major legislative prayer cases, Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, 376 F.3d 292 (4th Cir. 2004) (finding sectarian invocations delivered by council members on a rotating basis unconstitutional), and Simpson v. Chesterfield County Bd. of Supervisors, 404 F.3d 276 (4th Cir. 2005) (finding nonsectarian invocations delivered by local clergy constitutional).)

      It is with this in mind that we should evaluate the actions of the Sand Springs City Council.

      Finally, even if the U.S. Constitution did not forbid acts in support of religion, the Oklahoma Constitution would. See Okla. Const. art II, § 5 (“No public money or property shall ever be appropriated, applied, donated, or used, directly or indirectly, for the use,
      benefit, or support of any sect, church, denomination, or system
      of religion, or for the use, benefit, or support of any priest,
      preacher, minister, or other religious teacher or dignitary, or
      sectarian institution as such.”).

  • The Broodwich

    I was raised a Mormon in Columbus, GA and remember going to a City Council meeting one night in Boy Scouts.  There was some Christian Pastor asked to give the prayer the night we went.  I remember when it was over one of my scout masters turning to the other and saying “Bet they’d never have a Mormon Bishop do that.”

    I think being raised in the LDS church, in a part of the country where there are few LDS members made me sort of hypersensitive to the importance of Church-State separation.  Mormons don’t do the Lord’s Prayer.  How would they feel if every school day started with the Lord’s Prayer?   As an atheist, my resolve against establishment has grown, for sure.

    But what is so funny to me is how few Mormons seem to get that if they don’t stop establishment, as a minority religion, they are on the losing side.  The established religion, prayers said at schools, invocations of government bodies, etc etc will NEVER include their beliefs.  

    What always annoyed me was that the religious always seem to be fine with any establishment, so long as what is established is their view.  Any establishment that differs from their view is a travesty!

    Obviously, the truth is ANY establishment is a travesty…period.

  • Aleena051985

    I used to live on the other side of Tulsa from Sand Springs.  It’s scary out.  I very genuinely hope that the people challenging this don’t end up dead.

  • Apate1049

    Pardon my ignorance but could you direct me to the place in the Constitution that specifically states “separation of church and state”? I’ve always been under the impression that it states that the government may not establish by law a specific religion. I’ve reviewed and have yet to find a law in Sand Springs that establishes Christianity as the official religion. Please do not reply ignorantly with the word “inference” as I have never seen that word in our Constitution either. By your logic, if elected officials never use the word God, then it seems they would be establishing atheism as the official religion and that, of course, would be unconstitutional, in your opinion.

    • http://www.beaumcelhattan.com Beau McElhattan
      • Apate1049

        I asked where in the Constitution. Not an organization called freedom from religion or from a justice who feels that they were appointed to legislate from the bench. And again I’m looking for the words “separation of church and state” in the Constitution OR the law in Sand Springs that establishes a religion and requires its citizens to practice. Because the argument, and even the word used in the articles you directed me to, is establishment. But this situation in Sand Springs seems to tell only half the story omitting the part about establishment and that’s because establishment of religion doesn’t exist there or anywhere in America that I have found. Once more, my argument is that atheists would prefer that everyone practice atheism in public and by your argument that qualifies as establishing atheism as our official religion. Why not allow all to practice/worship publicly? Because that is the true definition of freedom OF religion as stated in the Constitution rather than freedom FROM religion which is not stated anywhere in our founding documents.

        • Parse

          Simply because you are unwilling or incapable to do your own research does not obligate us to do it for you. 

          Here’s a starting place: Everson v. Board of Education.  Both the majority and dissenting opinions agreed that the first amendment’s religious clause can be defined in terms of ‘a wall of separation between church and state’.

          • Apate1049

            Just the kind of response I expected Parse.  I DID in fact do my research.  I was injecting sarcasm into my argument.  The fact is that the Constitution states that the Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof.   The Constitution is black and white.  In this case, the Congress has not made any laws doing either of these things.  So it seems that you are able to do a 5 minute google search in an attempt to make me appear uneducated but you have failed to understand the basis laid out by the Constitution of the United States.  Next please. 

            • Beau McElhattan

              @Apate1049
              I’ll have to get back with you on this. I’m a bit occupied at the moment watching my grass grow.

            • Beau McElhattan

              @Apate1049
              I’ll have to get back with you on this. I’m a bit occupied at the moment watching my grass grow.

              • Apate1049

                I have to laugh a little at how atheists work so hard to force their unbelief on everyone but become so enraged when a believer expresses belief publicly. It just seems ironic to me. Hey Parse thanks for patterning your response after mine. Originality is key to winning debates. Before I go, in response to my “extremely limiting” interpretation of the Constitution can you define establish and law for me? Again, I just haven’t seen where the laws have been passed in favor of a religion. Maybe it’s hiding right behind all this “conservative rage” that doesn’t seem to exist either. Oh, and Beau, don’t you hate it when you have no more legitimate responses because someone more educated on the facts chimed in? I’m not even arguing in favor of religion, it’s the Constitution I support. And yes, I believe the founders left it there in black and white so that even crazy liberal justices wouldn’t be able to distort it. Unfortunately, we all know how that’s gone for the last few decades.

            • Parse

              Ah, conservative rage.  How predictable.  Ignore 225 years of jurisprudence and stare decisis; if it’s not in the black and white text of the constitution, it doesn’t matter. 

              You claim to have done your research, but all you provide is assertions.  Could you provide
              some documentation on how your (extremely limiting) interpretation of
              the Constitution is the correct one?  Where by ‘the correct one’, I
              mean that it’s the interpretation used by federal courts – you know,
              the people who are responsible for interpreting the Constitution as it
              applies to laws and situations. 

              Because as it stands now, it’s your word versus that of eight contemporaneous Supreme Court justices, and you don’t need a J.D. to see which side makes a stronger case.  

          • Apate1049

            Just the kind of response I expected Parse.  I DID in fact do my research.  I was injecting sarcasm into my argument.  The fact is that the Constitution states that the Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof.   The Constitution is black and white.  In this case, the Congress has not made any laws doing either of these things.  So it seems that you are able to do a 5 minute google search in an attempt to make me appear uneducated but you have failed to understand the basis laid out by the Constitution of the United States.  Next please. 

  • Cindy

    The people in Sand Springs, Oklahoma ARE bad people.  I have lived here 35 years since I was a teen.  They are the most hateful people.  They are like Ernest T. Bass of Mayberry.  They are abusive and mean and a lot of militia people.  But, they pile into the cars and fill the churches every Sunday. 

    Sand Springs people are mean, mean, mean.  And the Christians here are the most horrific people I had ever met in my young life.   There is a completely different level of a perverted Christianity in Oklahoma.  They do what they want, have low moral and ethical standards, but never shut up about their church attendance.  I am saving my money to get out of here. 

    BTW, check out the city council and mayor’s page.  See how many of them fit religion in their descriptions.  One guy even puts the name of his evilgelical church under “Education.” 

  • Cindy

    And, one article in the paper over the last few months announced a Christian book writer had “donated” multiple copies of a Christian book called “Shields of Armor” to the Sand Springs police department.  Anyone intelligent enough to question it, would be found in the river dead.  


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