Mount Pleasant, TN City Manager: All Work and No Pray

In Mount Pleasant, Tennessee, new city manager Michelle Williams has pissed off a lot of people with a new policy she’s instituted:

She said it recently came to her attention that the city chaplain was holding a group prayer service several times a week inside city hall.

She said the prayer sessions at city hall were being held three to four times a week and lasted about 40 minutes each. During that time, the employees that took part were getting paid.

That will no longer be the case, effective immediately.

Williams said it’s not the prayer she had a problem with, it’s the fact that the prayer sessions were being done while employees were on the clock.

“It’s just I can’t have all the employees in a prayer session and not taking people’s water and sewer bills,” she said. “Or people who are out working on the sewer and water lines coming in and leaving their jobs for a prayer session, I just can’t run the city that way.”

So no more praying while on the job. If people want to pray, they can do it before or after work. Williams, you see, has this radical idea that there ought to be a separation of church and state. And she believes that city employees should actually work instead of wasting the taxpayers’ time in a chapel.

And before any Bible-thumpers throw insults her way, let it be known that Williams is a Christian who says she prays daily. And privately.

The other city officials aren’t taking the news so well:

City Commissioner Bob Shackelford said praying should be allowed if it is not a nuisance and does not interfere with the employee’s job.

“The city manager would have been better off to let this matter go,” he said. “If the fire department and the police department are okay with it … it seems like an unwise decision to interfere if it’s okay with the department heads.”

Of course it’s interference. You’re praying instead of doing your job.

But you have to love the idea of a new city manager making a policy like that during her second week on the job.

Looks like Mount Pleasant picked the right person for this job.

(Thanks to Daniel for the link)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.

  • Anonymous

    Anyone know of a good, local, florist?  I’d like to send this lady some flowers.

  • Alex

    Impressive. And in TN, of all places.

  • http://chaoskeptic.blogspot.com Rev. Ouabache

    City Commissioner Bob Shackelford said praying should be allowed if it is not a nuisance and does not interfere with the employee’s job.

    If city employees can spend 40 minutes three or four times a week in a prayer session then they obviously have too many workers and not enough work. These people aren’t getting paid to study the Bible. They can do that on their own time.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t see where it matters if it’s OK with the department head when people are not doing their job while they’re on the clock.  Either fit it into the breaks or off the clock and outside work hours.

  • http://twitter.com/Victoriaed90 Victoria

    Is there somewhere we can email Ms. Williams? It’d be nice to write to someone because they are actually doing something right instead of just heaping shame on those like Rep Peter Palumbo.

  • T-Rex

    “City Commissioner Bob Shackelford said praying should be allowed if it is not a nuisance and does not interfere with the employee’s job.”

    Hello?

    “She said the prayer sessions at city hall were being held three to four times a week and lasted about 40 minutes each. During that time, the employees that took part were getting paid.”I guess he chose to ignore that statement based on his ignorant reply. Good for her. And in Tennessee, capitol of the Bibleborg.

  • Tmay2

    Why in the world would it take 40 minutes to pray?

    • Anonymous

      Sounds more like full blown church services rather than prayer. Any any case, absolutely insane. Expecting to take 40 minutes paid breaks? And then throwing a fit when told otherwise. What planet do these clowns live on?

    • GiGi

      well, first there’s the regular prayer…. then they have to take time on top of that to pray they don’t get caught.  sadly, since no one hears their prayers, they were caught.

      • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

        GiGi, what on earth are you talking about? Getting caught doing what?

        As a follower of Christ, I’ve never prayed to not get caught doing something. That doesn’t even make sense?!?!

        Tom, the idea of frequent prayer is not to busy yourself so as one can no longer have the time to contemplate issues. On the contrary time, people are encouraged to dig deep and meditate on the meaning of what is being said/taught. 

        • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

          With that said, I would recommend that they do this on their lunch period, before or after work at someone’s nearby house and not in a city room unless they are authorized (signed up, rented, whatever that process looks like) for its use.

        • Tom

          You evidently have a somewhat different definition of prayer to me.  I was always under the impression that prayer is an attempt to converse with god, whereas meditation is, in a manner of speaking, conversing with the self.  You seem to conflate the two.

          Of course, since god doesn’t exist, that could mean that some people who think they’re praying actually wind up meditating by accident.

    • Tom

      Not only that; unless you’re a Muslim and you have to do that whole prayer-mat-pointing-to-Mecca malarkey, why should you even need to leave your post in order to pray?

      One likely answer was pointed out once in a beautiful quote I saw somewhere once and have never been able to find again, search engines notwithstanding.  The gist of it (mangled somewhat by my abysmal memory) was that the very purpose of repeated, mandatory daily prayer at inconvenient times, and any tedious ritual that goes with it (such as going to a particular place or halting other activity), is specifically to disrupt whatever else you’re doing at the time, to break your train of thought and drag it toward god, so that your religion ends up permeating your entire thought process and becomes associated with everything else you do in your daily life.  It’s not a bug; it’s a feature.

      The idea, I suppose, is to reinforce the notion that your religion is more important than anything else in your life, to make sure you don’t go long enough between praising god’s goodness to think coherently at any length about whether he actually is or not, and also, because religion is actually so glaringly non-essential to daily life when viewed with anything approaching objectivity, to try and give it a veneer of indispensability by associating and interweaving it with all the other, essential things you do during the day.

      In other words, perhaps the people who actually do pray the way Jesus is supposed to have told them to are the ones closest to concluding that it’s all bunk and leaving the faith anyway.  There are, I think, several other instructions attributed to Jesus that don’t seem to get followed very often by the overtly religious, and they all generally seem to also be the ones that even atheists think might actually be good ideas (the golden rule, general notions about the undesirability of hurting or ostracising people, that sort of thing), which would probably explain why the others don’t do them – perhaps a lot of the ones that did ended up joining us.  I wonder just how many of the major institutions of the various religions unwittingly self-select against some of their most important tenets in this manner.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000019835554 Patrina Chamney

    It would seem that there’s a good reason that Shackleford is a city commissioner and not the city manager!   He sees neither the separation issue, nor the fact that many hours of taxpayers’ money is being wasted. 

  • Anonymous

    mwilliams@mtpleasant-tn.com <– her email address.

    Check this out – they have an entire linked *page* on their OFFICIAL GOVERNMENT Website that advertises churches:

    http://www.mtpleasant-tn.com/church.htm

    • Anonymous

      I’m horrified that the website has a 2010 trash schedule, and is © 2009.

      Could one of these folks that just picked up another 2 hours and 40 minutes of work time a week, please find time to update the site.

    • http://aboutkitty.blogspot.com/ Cat’s Staff

      Many do.  I don’t know why they need the free advertising, but I suppose they can get away with it as long as they don’t exclude anyone who requests to be on the list.  In my city the link/page is “Worship”.  I makes me wonder if we were to ever get a building for our atheist group would the city put that on the page, or say that since we didn’t have anything to worship we wouldn’t be included.

  • Anonymous
  • Hc Conn

    Couldn’t they just pray to themselves while they worked? As far as I know you don’t have to be in a group setting or in front of a preacher to pray. They could be praying and typing at the same time. This just sounds like an excuse to take extra breaks.

    • Rich Wilson

      Sounds more like ‘torture’ to me, but to each their own.  But I also wonder about those who don’t want to pray.  I wonder how many closets that community has.

      • Hc Conn

        Or if people of other religions get to go pray. would a muslim get an equal opportunity? or an atheist get 40 min to go read?

      • Anonymous

        If I was an employee there I would have been getting paid to take a sweet nap 3 times a week.

  • Anonymous

    My email to Ms.  Williams:

    As a former
    reporter I understand how uncomfortable it was for you to have not only made
    the decision on praying during work hours, but anticipating the onslaught of
    unwanted media attention.

     

    Rest assured
    that those of us who have covered city government appreciate your dilemma and
    know your job is a tough one.

     

    Also rest
    assured that those of us on the Left Coast are still picking our jaws up off
    the ground that this was going on in the first place. It’s certainly a
    demographic difference: As a city reporter I would have had this stopped from
    Day One.

     

    Thanks for
    your sound decision-making process in the face of what must be daunting
    criticism. I admire your challenges and certainly the decision.

     

    Good luck,
    and have a nice weekend.

    • Anonymous

      … annnnnd it was returned as undeliverable.

      Or more specifically, “aborted after 1 second”

      snort.

      • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

        Nonetheless, very well written.

  • http://www.suburbansweetheart.com/ Suburban Sweetheart

    Not an interference? In that case, I’d like to spend three or four times a week browsing the internet for 40 minutes instead of doing my job. It’s my religion. I worship technology.

  • http://aboutkitty.blogspot.com/ Cat’s Staff

    It’s funny that the rational was the wasted time…it’s also an issue that it’s a preference given to people of a certain religious viewpoint and not others.  If I was working there would I be allowed to go do nothing productive for the same amount of time?  It’s a penalty for those who do not agree with the chaplains religious viewpoint and have to continue working.

    • walkamungus

      But that’s the best rationale, frankly, because it cuts across religious lines: “As a taxpayer, you are paying these people to work. And they are NOT WORKING.” If they’d been surfing the Internet for that amount of time per day, the taxpayers would be up in arms.

  • Anonymous

    Truthfully I look for her to be fired over this.

  • Rich Wilson

    This is a great step, but before we get too excited:

    When asked if prayer would be allowed before city meetings, he said those prayers are considered a tradition. It is customary to open legislative sessions with prayer and it is legally defensible by case law, as opposed to conducting prayer sessions during the work day, which is not, Hardin said.

    And in the clip, they said the Chaplain would be coming it at 7:30 to lead prayer sessions.  So they’re not going to be paid for praying, but there will still be a Christian only prayer at the place of work (before clocking in) and before council meetings.

    Hallelujah. 

  • Anonymous

    The fire department is okay with it, huh? I can just see it now:

    Chief: Okay everyone, before we put out this fire, gather round. Oh Lord, as we are about to put our lives in peril, we beseech thee…
    …[40 minutes later]…
    Amen. Okay, let’s fight that fire! Uh…never mind.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    I have to wonder if there is a coercive atmosphere in City Hall about participating in these “prayer services.” If an employee would rather get work done, or it’s just not their cup of tea, do they face disapproval from their department heads, or social pressure or ostracizing by their peers? Some might be relieved that they no longer have to go along with the crowd.

  • Geraard Spergen

    Why the hell does the city have a “City Chaplain” anyway?  Is he/she a volunteer?

    • Rich Wilson

      Yes.

      Chaplain Jack Taylor, who has served in the volunteer position for about two years, said he has come to an agreement with the city over when he can pray with city officials. Taylor said the situation was a misunderstanding and he does not want to get mixed up in a church and state issue. It is important to pray for city workers and officials, but it’s at the city’s discretion to allow it during business hours, Taylor said.

      • Chris Harmon

        I wonder why they feel it is important for city workers to pray?…seems an odd need.. how can leading prayer meetings while on the clock be a misunderstanding?? More like she didn’t go with the flow from the previous city manager.. maybe why that person no longer has the job…

  • http://www.everydayintheparkwithgeorge.com/ Matt E

    How much you want to bet that the majority of the people who are up in arms about her decision are the same  Tea Party types that constantly complain about government waste.
    I’m sure they don’t see the irony.

    • Nordog

      Yeah, I don’t see the irony, because you just made it up.

      Now, if you want to cite actual examples of what you claim, then I would see some irony.  Till then, nope.

      Besides, I’m a Tea Party Christian and I think this woman did the right thing to shut this activity down.

      • Rich Wilson

        Yes, but you’re a Friendly Tea Party Christian :-)

        (and although I jest, I am serious in appreciating the civility of the disagreement when it occurs)

  • SeniorSkeptik

    With all that gawding and amening going on would I be correct in assuming that all the potholes are filled, parks are clean, no one has been laid off and the city cofers are overflowing?

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    Williams, you see, has this radical idea that there ought to be a separation of church and state.

    That’s what you got out of that? She’s not forbidding City Hall having a Christian-only prayer. It doesn’t look to me like this has anything to do wtih church/state separation. She just doesn’t want employees wasting 40 minutes a day 4 times a week. I think it had more to do with the logistics of how much time/money was being wasted on this rather than the establishment clause.

  • Anonymous

    I wonder what it’s like to be a non-christian or non-believer working for that city and the questions that get asked. Is being a good christian part of a their informal employee evaluation process?

  • Fenrir_Lokison

    Here is the problem with her logic…If she is a believer, she knows we actual ARE to pray everywhere. And another thing…Did she say they were doing it during UNAUTHORIZED break times?

    For example, I was a Marine and technically I was on the clock 24/7. However, during regular breaks and lunchtime, I would spend some of that time praying or reading the Bible. Technically those ARE paid work hours. My mother who was a salaried employee for the government would read and pray during her breaks and lunchtime. Those are paid hours.

    So, does she say exactly when these 40 minute prayer sessions were going on?

    • Thin-ice

      Your argument is a crock Fenrir, and you know it. If a bunch of employees prayed together during their lunch break (presuming they get an hour break for lunch and not half hour) you KNOW she wouldn’t have a problem with it, nor with people “praying without ceasing” in their heads while they work. Nor are they “on duty 24/7″ like you were in the military. It’s a TOTALLY different situation.

      She plainly says they were praying during time that they were on the clock. Why do you have to twist it to your own interpretation to make her look like the bad guy?  . . . wait, I forgot, that’s what you folks do with science, and the Bible, or whatever, to make it fit your own Christian presuppositions. 

    • Guest

      Actually, Fenrir, salaried government positions do not include paid lunchtime.  Government employees are expected to put in at least 8 hours per day–more if so required to complete their work–in addition to whatever time they take for lunch.  So an hour lunch break translates to an expectation of 9 hours between arriving at work and leaving for home.  So your mother very well may have been praying during her lunch hour, but if she was including that lunch hour within her 8-hour workday then she was shorting her employer.  Lunch is NOT paid.

  • Thin-ice

    Time out for irony: the right-wing, tea-party, evangelical types that scream loudest about government workers not doing a full days work for a full days pay, are probably exactly the folks taking part in the prayer meeting, on taxpayers money!

    (subsequent edit: I see MattE had this thought before me, but I posted before I read every comment!)

    • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_RPPWVLMFKJ7QCHLEVQAR5GSL5M momma J

      Whoa! Hold the train there. Waaay too many assumptions taking place. Isn’t this the place for thinkers? You are assuming: 

      1)We have no idea what their political affiliation is
      2) Other religious groups besides evangelicals pray
      3) You are assuming that they don’t put their hours in. They could be showing up before or staying after their mandatory work hours to make up the difference.

      Let’s not jump to conclusions without facts please


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