Rapid City, South Dakota Wants to Keep Religious Invocations at City Council Meetings

In Rapid City, South Dakota, the City Council always begins meetings with an invocation delivered by a “local minister“:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation recently sent them a letter (at the urging of a local resident) objecting to the promotion of religion. But the city doesn’t want to budge:

The request has not been well received by city leaders, including Mayor Sam Kooiker who is “strongly in favor of continuing the prayers.”

“I believe that this is a time-honored tradition that has strong community support,” he said, noting that the state Legislature and U.S. Congress open their sessions with a prayer.

Dale Bartscher, a Rapid City pastor and executive director of the Family Heritage Alliance, said prayers before city council meetings are appropriate.

“This is not an oddity that our city council opens with prayer. We are in the mainstream of our nation’s Founding Fathers. Our nation was built upon Judeo-Christian values,” he said.

Yvonne Taylor, executive director of the South Dakota Municipal League, said prayers before meetings should be a local decision, that a group outside Rapid City doesn’t need to “stick its nose into.”

“They’re having a pause for prayer. It’s not spending public money. They’re taking a moment. I’m sure they’re doing it in a manner respectful of other religions,” Taylor said.

Right, I’m sure Muslims are just jumping for joy during every invocation…

This isn’t about money — this is about respecting the beliefs of everybody by remaining religiously neutral. FFRF isn’t asking the Council to say that God doesn’t exist; it’s asking them to have a moment of silence as a neutral compromise. Unfortunately, the people who are on the council don’t seem to get it.

Last night, members of the Legal & Finance Committee voted unanimously to draft a policy regarding the future of the invocation — but they were leaning toward keeping the prayers:

… Council Member Steve Laurenti said he believed that prayers are protected speech under the First Amendment.

“I believe this prayer is the free exercise thereof,” he said. “This municipal government is not making any law respecting any type of religion.”

City Attorney Joel Landeen said the policy could be adopted after just one reading and one vote by the entire council. He said he expected a policy should be available for the full council to vote on in a couple weeks.

This is just asking for trouble. There’s a reason only Christian pastors turned out in support of the invocations last night — it’s their prayer that would be removed from the agenda. We’re not talking about a secular, inclusive-to-all invocation here.

If the legal team there is any good, they’ll take the advice of FFRF and change their invocation to a moment of silence. Better yet, they’ll stop wasting everyone’s time and get down to business.

(Thanks to Amanda 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.

  • Cortex_Returns

    Christians have no right to governing or even residing in the Black Hills, period.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I’m so sick of hearing the “America was founded on Christian principles” lie. Read the goddamn document you claim to love, fundies. It says right there in it that we were not. And your god hates liars.

    • Derrik Pates

      That would require reading. As I’ve said before elsewhere, they love the Bible, but most of them don’t read that either…

  • GeraardSpergen

    “noting that the state Legislature and U.S. Congress open their sessions with a prayer.” That’s a strong argument… we ought to be going for the bigger fish.

    • Scott Garrett

      True, but sometimes the big fish are the hardest to beat. Probably best to beat this at a “grassroots” level – if a bunch of towns in a given state have been blocked, then it’s easier to fight it with precedent at the state level, then district, etc.

    • eric

      Actually, their comparing themselves to Congress might be useful. Congress has had a Hindu give it and now no longer mentions Jesus at all. So FFRF could argue; “sure, we’re okay with you being like Congress. That means your ‘regular’ invoker should stop mentioning Jesus, and you should allow people of other faiths to sign up to give it.”

  • RCResident

    Bit of info about Kookier.

    1. his name’s phonetic meaning is an accurate description of him.

    2. He is already an embattled mayor after having gone on a witch hunt that cost the life of a city employee who was falsely accused of having stolen from the city, it cost a family business to have to sell at pennies per dollar their equipment to pay for legal council, and they were completely exonerated with no findings of guilt beyond petty crimes of people not even accused in the initial findings. The family now has a large civil suit against the city for this witch hunt.

    3. Kookier is the first switch sides if he thinks the populism is on his side, he has no spine of his own and instead relies entirely on what he thinks the people want him to do, which is fine except when the majority of people want you to break the law.

    I suspect this will end up in court, and the city will lose, and Kookier will use the resulting firestorm to try and ride into a second term. Hopefully between the witch hunt and lawsuits though we can get a good mayor back into office who won’t break the law knowingly.

  • Scott Garrett

    Two notes:

    First: “It’s not spending public money.” That’s quite the lie. The building that they’re meeting in is paid with public money. The lights, the heat, the amplifier system that makes the invocation louder. Even the salaries of the people there – my wife was staff of a municipality, and while she was salaried, there were also hourly employees who were paid to sit through the invocation. Obviously: she was paid for her time there as well.

    Second: It’s not necessarily about the money. It’s truly about the government giving time and resources to one religion in preference to others. Unless it’s offered to all, it should be offered to none.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jason.jackson Jason Jackson

    I want to mention that we have what is becoming a thriving free-thought community and group in Rapid City, and it was a local freethinker(s) that submitted the complaint. I won’t out them here because some of us have already received threats over this. If there are any locals in the Rapid City / Black Hills area that would like to join our group you can view our public facebook page at :

    https://www.facebook.com/BlackHillsFreethinkers

  • HannibalBarca

    I’m from South Dakota, and it is very dangerous here to come out as a nonbeliever, unless your job/livelihood is bulletproof. The fact that someone in Rapid City is (presumably) willing to come forward if the FFRF sues is pretty cool. If you were, say, a business owner, coming out as an atheist or even as an agnostic could be a death sentence to your livelihood.
    I have a cadre of nonreligious, agnostic and atheist friends, but I am also young, and benefit from the fact that 1/3 of my generation (Millennials) – even here in SD, from my experience – are unaffiliated.
    For the record, I was raised as a Young Earth Creationist Dominionist Christian, and have since jettisoned all the nonsense.

  • Derrik Pates

    Just heard about this on the radio this morning. As a resident of Rapid City, I definitely believe this is worth supporting. Government is a workplace, not a church – no one’s religion should be pushed by government, in a council meeting or otherwise.


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