After 12 Years of Getting Right Down to Business, City Council Will Bring Back Religious Invocations

For more than a decade now, the members of the Irvine City Council (in California) have started meetings by doing what they were elected to do: The work of the residents.

Now, after a 3-2 vote, they have decided to put God on their agenda:

Members of the Irvine City Council. Only Krom and Agran correctly voted against the prayers.

After a dozen years without starting its meetings with prayer, the Irvine City Council will again invite religious leaders to say an invocation before plunging into government business.

Council members Beth Krom and Larry Agran, who had advocated ending the practice years before, voted against the prayers.

Agran said the move to bring back council invocations was “driven by lawyers and bureaucrats, not us policymakers.”

He said he has nothing against invocations but “I just don’t want to be in the business of prescribing and directing people of faith.”

Mayor Pro Tem Jeffrey Lalloway referred to the ceremony as an “American tradition” and called on “people to be more tolerant.”

This is not an issue of tolerance. No one would argue if the politicians prayed before their meetings, or at home, or at church, or on the drive to work, or anywhere else on their own time.

This is an issue of following the law, not discriminating against atheists, and not wasting time that should be spent working for the taxpayers.

No word yet on which “religious leaders” will be invited to deliver the invocations, or whether any Humanists are even being considered.

(Thanks to Scott 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.

  • David McNerney

    Is there something wrong about doing a Dom Joly on this and having a chat on the phone? “I’M IN THE COUNCIL MEETING! NO, IT’S OKAY. SOME GUY IS JUST TALKING TO HIMSELF!”

  • Michael Cluff

    This is happening in my town of Galloway, NJ, which prompted this fiery editorial from the Atlantic City Press:

  • EllenBeth Wachs

    I am so tired of these people trotting out the “tolerance” argument. These are the same people that refuse to tolerate atheist displays during the holidays when we ask for equal time.

  • atheistbob

    seems they need to remove 3 of those 5 members!

  • ortcutt

    I really like to bake. I wish more city councils would show some simple tolerance of us bakers by reciting a bread recipe before each meeting. For too long, bakers have been pushed aside by the these gluten-haters who don’t understand our nation’s traditions.

  • Blacksheep

    The article says it’s non-denominational, so that fit’s with the 1st:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;…”

  • Blacksheep

    It’s a tough one. Most Christians would not object to a “Happy Holidays” display. Where it gets tough is when the displays are specifically anti-religion/anti-Christian. I never understood that at all. During the holidays, a sign that says, “There is no God, etc” is not celebrating anything, it’s criticizing someone else. I truly believe that if a local atheist group created a display that included a snow covered tree with a “Happy Holidays” message, (or something else that’s non-critical / non-judgemental / not sarcastic) we would have half the issues we do on that front.

  • Art_Vandelay

    I’m guessing they mean it’s not specific to any of the 30,000 or so denominations of Christianity.

  • Blacksheep

    Why did I put an apostrophe in “fits”? Need coffee.

  • Brian Westley

    The courts say that the government can’t prefer religion over non-religion ( Epperson v. Arkansas et al.), and a prayer to any god(s) is in violation of that.

  • ortcutt

    It’s a Free Speech issue, and it has nothing to do with the fact that the speech is about religion. When government allows private speech on government property, they can’t impose viewpoint discrimination. They can’t say that pro-religion viewpoints are allowed but anti-religion viewpoints aren’t. The same thing would apply if the speech were about gardening, the English Civil War, or Justin Bieber, rather than religion.

  • Blacksheep

    for the sake of argument, what if the speakers were a fair combination of religious and humanist?

  • Blacksheep

    I was responding to EllenBeth’s comment about holiday displays. protesting with anti-anything comments in a public park during the holidays ia obnoxious. There would be nothing at all odd about an ordinance that allows celebratory displays that pass certain public decency rules. (For example a display celebrating pornography would not be allowed).

  • ortcutt

    Holiday displays are speech, so yes, I am responding to your point. Private speech of government property falls under the Public Forum Doctrine. It depends on what you mean by “public decency rules”. Obscene speech is unprotected by the first amendment, but the test for it is fairly strict.

    I can’t speak to the personal motives of the people who place the atheist displays in the winter, but one of my goals if I were to do so would be to exercise my Free Speech rights to display speech that is critical of religion. That’s something you don’t seem to understand when you complain about the fact that their “not celebrating anything”. I’m not required to celebrate anything. The First Amendment (including the Free Speech Clause and the Establishment Clause) matters to a lot of atheists, and our rights get constrained if we don’t exercise them once in a while.

  • C Peterson

    How sad. I spent half my childhood in Irvine, and went to high school there. Because of the influence of UC Irvine, the school and community were much more diverse and liberal than most of Orange County. It’s a real shame to see this backsliding. I wonder if there are any secular student organizations at the university that might take up this matter?

  • Blacksheep

    I think it must be a cultural difference, maybe I’m stuck in a lake Wobegon mindset (although I’m a NYer). The idea of complaining, criticizing, or belittling in a public square during the holidays is odd to me. That said, I totally get the concept of a “Happy Solstice” display.

  • curtcameron

    My usual response to stuff like this, to conservative Christians, is “I’m surprised you would want the goverment telling you when and how to pray!”

  • Jim Hudlow

    Blacksheep and others. This is
    NOT a “tough one” as you say. There are no degrees to breaking the
    law. No government employee (on duty) or institution may prefer one religion
    over another, one sect over another or any of those over irreligion. The
    Supreme Court has ruled on this repeatedly. Religious displays on public
    grounds are all illegal without exception. All “invocations” to begin
    government proceedings defy the First Amendment. There is no such thing as a
    “non denominational” invocation, prayer or whatever label you want to
    use. These invocations will inevitably leave many people out of the fold and
    make many feel either unwelcome or unrepresented at the proceedings. And no
    matter how non denominational you make any prayer it still does not represent
    me. I am an atheist. I am part of our pluralistic society. It is legally
    mandated that ALL members of our society be represented equally by our
    government period. Invoking any given person’s god to start a proceeding
    establishes skewed representation from the very beginning. Plus, all members of
    the board know this prayer business is illegal in the course of conducting government
    business. Their flaunting of the law not only makes them unqualified to serve
    in any government position but demonstrates they consider themselves holier
    than most in their own eyes.

  • Blacksheep

    I understand what you are saying. One big difference, is that often times Christians put more emphasis on what they think is “right” over what the law dictates. I believe that this is how much socila change came about in the world, by putting right first and might second. I respect the law of the land, but when there is opportunity to sway toward what I feel is right (Which no doubt is different from what you feel is right) then I’ll go there.

    One recent example: Atheists on FA were aggrevated (some were outraged) that naval vessels flew a Christian flag during church services. They demanded that the law be upheld. (you can look in the archive). But when they were reminded that flying the flag was indeed the law, many changed their stance to: “Change the law then!”

    And that’s what they should do – just because it’s a law does not mean that it can never change.

    So to me it’s a tough one.

  • ortcutt

    It’s odd because religious privilege is taken for granted. That’s part of what we are hoping to change.

  • Edmond

    What is this “during the holidays” that you keep mentioning? Are certain messages disallowed during certain date ranges of the year? Is free speech seasonal? Isn’t EVERY day a holiday, somewhere? Does it MATTER if a message celebrates or criticizes? If it’s allowed, then it’s ALLOWED, no matter the time of year.

  • ortcutt

    That’s something that really irritates me. The attitude among many Christians is “We own December”. They even get mad when atheists state that some of us like Christmas too. I like Christmas. The Nativity is nice myth, along with Santa Claus, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Grinch, and “A Christmas Story”. What’s bizarre is that it’s late January now and there are still people who are resentful of us exercising our basic Free Speech rights in December.

  • Arthur Byrne

    We are happy to be tolerant of the Christian custom of starting meetings with prayer, as long as they are willing to be tolerant of the Atheist custom of filing lawsuits demanding injunctive relief and nominal damages of $1 plus legal expenses.

    (With thanks to the late General Napier.)

  • ortcutt

    You can’t identify secular activists with “might over right” though. The law defines what our rights are, and when people seek to have their rights enforced, that isn’t “might over right”, that’s looking after your rights.

    You complain that secularists argued “Change the law then”. That’s an acceptable response to any law. What you can’t claim is that anyone said “Let’s just break the law then”. On the contrary, there are government officials all over the country who routinely violate the Constitution (our nation’s supreme law) because they feel like their religion licenses them to do so. If you don’t like the protections that the Establishment Clause and the Free Speech Clause afford to all Americans, you are free to pursue amending the Constitution. That would be the lawful way of going about things.

  • Blacksheep

    yes, that’s what I’m saying. There’s a “Holiday” period that many people find special, inspiring, comforting, and fun. I’m saying “Holiday” because I actually mean Christmas, Hannukah, etc. and all the secular trappings of the holiday – santa, trees, candles, good cheer – all that. I’m specifically saying that it’s not the time or place for protest banners that are worded to put others down or criticize their beliefs. Obviously free speach is allowed at any time – but why smeone want to take away from a time of year enjoyed by nearly everyone?

  • ortcutt

    Some atheists enjoy those holiday traditions and wish to do so while acknowledging that the Nativity is a myth. American Atheists put up a “Keep the Merry, Dump the Myth” and many Christians went crazy. Why can’t they even accept how atheists want to celebrate the holidays?

  • Pureone

    Don’t forget the Satanists, Wicca and everyone else.

  • Rich Wilson

    I would argue that it’s not a time to presume other people’s faith, or to implicitly ostracize them, which is exactly what sectarian displays do. There are plenty of places to demonstrate the religious aspect of your holiday. It harms no one for the city to stay out of it.

  • Rich Wilson

    From my very rough memory of case law, it might survive the courts. HI recently decided to do away with Invocations in the state legislature, but I think it was as much “right thing to do” as “legal”.

    Obviously I’d be better with a mix that included humanists. But I really don’t see what’s wrong with just leaving it out? Can’t they get to business without a pithy message about whatever it will be about? Isn’t their own personal faith enough to guide them?

    However I am reminded of the recent Inauguration Benediction, which stated that we need religion or we’ll fall into moral decay. I’m sure you’d see the problem with a Benediction saying “we need to get rid of religion before it tears us apart”.

  • pansies4me

    My 11 year old son loves to bake too! Maybe I should attend the next township trustee meeting with him and demand equal time…

  • Randomfactor

    I think Agram actually spoke at a freethought convention in that city a year or two back, to welcome the conference.

  • Randomfactor

    They don’t have to allow obnoxious speech…they can always ban all forms including the religious. There is no other option.

  • baal

    Having done time at a State House (legislature not jail), the fundys get frothing angry whenever a non-protestant gives the invocation. The secularists “all voices” arguments are really an attempt to get the xtians to stop having the government pray on their behalf. Generally it works too for just the reason I mention.

  • Rich Wilson
  • Rich Wilson

    I’m amazed that 100% of the comments (so far) are in support of the editorial (and against the prayer).

  • Cat’s Staff

    Non-denominational doesn’t cut it. Non-sectarian is better, but still runs into problems. In fact, if they are using that term then I would be very suspicious of their motives, or they don’t know enough about the issue to be making this kind of decision.

  • Edmond

    I realize what the “holidays” are, I was just being sarcastic, in an attempt to emphasize the fact that “the holidays” are not a valid reason to expect others to be silent. The fact that many people are celebrating certain holidays at a certain time doesn’t mean that anyone else must refrain from protests, banners or criticism during that time period. It just doesn’t wash as an argument. There are no laws which temporarily suspend freedom of speech, under the rationale that it’s “not the time or place”. If atheists (or anyone else) want to put up signs which make criticisms about Christmas, then when IS the time to do so? July? It seems to me that December is the perfect setting.

    I’m not sure that anyone CAN actually “take away” from a time of year. If atheists put up signs which summarize their feelings, Christians do not suddenly have LESS holidays, nor are they unable to fully enjoy their holidays. What is the alternative? Should atheists WAIT until “the holidays” are over (an ill-defined period) before posting banners? What if someone ELSE has ANOTHER holiday by then, and doesn’t want THEIRS criticized? This could go on all year.

    But back to the point at hand, if ANYTHING seems like it is happening at an inappropriate time or place, it’s “invocations” like these at government meetings. These people have been hired/elected to represent EVERYONE in a given district. They are ON THE JOB. They are not hired as spiritual leaders of city residents, nor of other council members. The expression of their personal religious beliefs during council meetings are not examples of protected free speech. If they HAVE particular religious beliefs, I’m sure they are given personal time to fulfill whatever duties they feel those beliefs entail. They don’t need to hijack the whole council to fulfill those duties FOR them, “tradition” or not. It is not an expression of “tolerance” for everyone else to STOP what they’re doing, postpone council work, and join in with rituals that they themselves may not follow.

  • TheBlackCat13

    Notice it says “establishment of religion”, not “establishment of A religion”. Even if it is non-denominational, it is still “establishment of religion”.

  • A3Kr0n

    Is there a pastafarian prayer that could be offered?

  • Blacksheep

    fair enough Rich – I would not want to hear that in a benediction.

  • Michael Cluff

    Unfortunately, that ratio is flipped at the town council meetings.

  • Aspieguy

    Does god get a vote on the council?

  • Michael

    The theists have got their foot in the door. There will be no stopping them now.

  • Jim Hudlow

    What is lawful is just that…quit making excuses for breaking the law….superstition does not except anyone from the law….stop it!!!

  • newavocation

    If supporting prayer is ok with the council, I would not see anything wrong with bringing a collection plate to pass around after the prayer too. If you support prayer kick in a little cash, it’s tax exempt too. Churches don’t support government, government supports churches.

  • coyotenose

    Christian messages implicitly criticize non-Christians. It’s a basic component of the religion. This has been explained here numerous times. The closest thing to a sin committed by the FFRF-style signs is that they’re forthright instead of passive-aggressive.

    The POINT of the FFRF signs, that any religious or anti-religious signage on public property is a bad idea, has likewise been explained here many, many, many times. Did I mention “many”? Because it’s been explained to you many fucking times.

    Good job trying to blame the victims. Oh, if only they wouldn’t exercise their rights, those mean atheists wouldn’t cause crimes against themselves! Your argument would find a lot of traction in 1954.

  • coyotenose

    I hear that no one sixty years ago should have spoken about Segregation during October-December, because it would have detracted from the holidays too much.

  • coyotenose

    Good luck explaining how the Constitutional insistence on religious neutrality – neutrality which was first brought up by and encouraged by Christians who were discriminated against and feared more – is wrong.

  • coyotenose

    Neutrality means nothing. No theistic invocation, no antitheistic invocation. Nothing. Switching them up is a dodge because the people who want anything overwhelmingly want Christian prayers, and I doubt that anyone here believes for a second that you are magically unaware of this despite it having been explained many times. Are you unable to remember anything, or are you dishonest?

  • coyotenose

    Sure there is. They’ll overstep their bounds in no time, they’ll get sued, the city will lose a huge amount of money, and their legacy will be garbage. And while they will lie and claim that they are the victims, there are honest council members there to rebut them, members who will have pointed out on record that the whole thing was going to hurt them.