City Council Member Who Wants Prayer at Meetings: ‘This is a Government Institution, Not a Secular Institution’

In Rapid City, South Dakota, the City Council begins meetings with an invocation delivered by a “local minister.“ FFRF has sent them warnings about it, but they haven’t stopped.

City Council member Bill Clayton (center)

Last month, Cole Bedford, a student at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology, spoke against the invocations at a Council meeting.

“This is not a challenge to anyone’s faith. It’s an appeal to your empathy” said Bedford, an atheist who grew up in Sturgis attending church. He added that in a predominantly Christian region, it’s important for a non-Christian to know they have an equal voice in government, a message that holding religious prayers does not send.

Council Member Bill Clayton responded to him with the most arrogant thing I think I’ve ever heard someone in his position say:

“And [my friend, State Rep.] [Kopp] Pete, in his younger years, thought he was an atheist, and in his atheistic views set out to disprove the Bible using science. And the harder he tried to disprove the Bible using science, the more he found that the Bible proved science. I will say this: Christianity is not a religion. And I see laughter, but it’s okay. I was younger once, too, and as we grow older we’re exposed to things in this life. Wisdom, I always say, comes with gray hair and if you don’t have any gray hair, you’re too young to have wisdom.

Got that, Cole? Stop complaining because you’re not old enough to understand how the laws don’t apply to Christians.

Now, we have an update of sorts to that storyline.

In nearby Meade County, the Commissioners want to “show their solidarity” with their Rapid City counterparts by praying at their next meeting.

At least one person (not on the council) had the good sense to speak out against it:

Meade County rancher Marvin Kammerer was opposed to the idea, suggesting that while Congress opens each session seeking guidance through prayer, it hasn’t worked out in their favor.

He said he believes in the separation of church and state and was among the more than 100 citizens in attendance at the Feb. 4 Rapid City Council meeting. He was one of only two who spoke against the issue.

“This is a secular institution. Prayer doesn’t belong here,” said Kammerer. “Keep it at home. Let’s not clutter the agendas up with things that might lead to potential problems.”

A perfectly sensible response: Stick to the relevant issues and stop using the city council as a way to move up the Fake Christian Martyr Totem Pole.

So how did commissioner Galen Niederwerder respond?

“This is a government institution, not a secular institution,” Niederwerder said.

What the hell?! Government institutions are secular institutions. They’re not Christian or atheist or Jewish institutions. They’re religion-less places.

Galen Niederwerder

The council chairman Robert Heidgerken opposed the prayer idea, but kept his mouth open just long enough to say something Christians are never supposed to say:

We say ‘under God’ in The Pledge of Allegiance. I think that’s asking for His guidance. I would rather leave it like that,” he said.

Damn right it’s “asking for His guidance.” That’s the very argument Christians try not to make when they promote saying the Pledge in school. They say the mention of God is simply a tradition, part of our “religious heritage,” not a Christian statement by any means. Heidgerken’s comment admits it’s really a Christian prayer in thinly-veiled disguise.

Needless to say, despite Heidgerken’s opposition, the prayer measure passed 4-1.

Following the advice of a commentator at the Rapid City Journal, I suggest that Niederwerder’s church hold the City Council meetings there before every Sunday sermon. Since Niederwerder has no problem with those two places merging, I doubt the people at his church will mind the intrusion at all.

Or FFRF can file a lawsuit against them, too. I’d be okay with that.

(Thanks to Collin for the link)

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.

  • flyb

    “Congress opens each session seeking guidance through prayer”

    Is that true?

    • Gus Snarp

      Probably. Or rather, they probably open the session with a prayer of some kind, but it’s a stretch to suggest that all of Congress is seeking guidance through it.

    • Gus Snarp

      Now you’ve led me down an interesting rabbit hole of procrastination. The House and Senate each have a chaplaincy, and have had since 1789. I would assume this is all considered to fall under “ceremonial deism”, but it does show just how far we are from real commitment to secularism. Better by far than the UK, and light years beyond most of the Middle East, but we’ve got a long way to go too. So here are the lists of those who’ve held the role of House or Senate Chaplain, note that every single one is Christian. Not even so much as a Jew, let alone a Humanist.

      http://chaplain.house.gov/chaplaincy/history.html

      http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Senate_Chaplain.htm#2

      • http://www.facebook.com/abb3w Arthur Byrne

        James Madison didn’t like it, but he was a bit more adamant about separation than most — though not because he was personally irreligious, but because he had seen first-hand the problems from religious establishment.

        He would have had the 1st Amendment’s antiestablishmentarian requirement bind the states, as well as the Federal Government. Instead, that had to wait until the 14th incorporated those restrictions to the states.

      • flyb

        Wow, thanks for the legwork. This is interesting information indeed.

      • Matt Davis

        We did have that Hindu prayer in Congress; remember the fundies who protested it? Even some of the anti-gay groups protested it! They were saying that Hinduism is polytheism so it goes against the false motto that they changed to in the 50s. (They, of course, misrepresented the facts and pretended the motto has always been IgWT.) Of course, this is hardly tolerance – it misunderstands that Hinduism is not just polytheism, but also monotheism, and it’s hardly polite to the chaplain. It’s not like their privilege was being eroded too much in Congress; there have been, what, three non-Christian prayers ever?

  • Gus Snarp

    “Secular” means “Satanic”, right?

    How completely ignorant of the definition of words, the history of the United States, and the content of the Constitution can you be and still hold an elective office?

    • jdm8

      That’s the problem, their mindset seems to suggest that not religious is by default enemy of religious.

      A retort would be that it’s a government institution, not a church.

    • Baby_Raptor

      Have you looked at the Republicans lately?

      There are probably 5 whole brain cells in the entire bunch.

      • Mackinz

        Actually, there’s thousands of brain cells.

        Their IQs are probably in the double digits, though.

    • Witchgawd

      Tell them that only 2 of the 10 Commandments are are actual laws and watch their heads explode.

      • Achron Timeless

        Know what’s more fun? Bring up inconvenient rules in Leviticus. Wait for them to say “well that’s the OLD testament, nothing in it counts because jesus”. Then remind them the 10 commandments are in the old testament.

        Now THAT has resulted in some interesting looks getting stuck on people’s faces.

        • vincent findley

          “Atheism”

          The belief that there was absolutely nothing,and nothing happened to the nothing until the nothing magically exploded (for no reason), creating everything and everywhere. Then a bunch of the exploded everything magically rearranged itself (for no reason whatsoever), into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs.

          And you mock our beliefs?

          • Achron Timeless

            Oh look, you can type out what you saw on a shitty meme photo. How clever.

            Interestingly enough, not a bit of what you regurgitated matches reality any more than your religion does. I guess that’s why you figure someone might actually think that, since bullshit made up stories are your comfort zone.

            • vincent findley

              Just like the meme photo said,”this aught to piss some people off” and you are the first customer. Just continue worshipping the state you live in. That’s what you Stalinists do.

              • Achron Timeless

                Oh yes, I responded to a reply in a comment section. What an amazing accomplishment to give yourself credit for. From what I’ve seen, that ends up being quite the feather in your cap.

              • Matt Davis

                Atheists =/= Stalinists. Totalitarian dictatorships require atheism in order to enforce dictator worship, but atheism does not require totalitarian dictatorships or communism.

                And please, if you want to have a reasonable discussion, do some research first. I suggest if you want to discuss the origins of the universe, watch Lawrence Krauss’s “A Universe From Nothing” on Youtube.

                Then look up abiogenesis and evolution, on actual science websites, not creationist websites since they misrepresent the data. Once you have a rough idea what it entails, then we can have a serious discussion. I’m not expecting you to learn every bit of it; I don’t know it all myself, but the basics should really not be too hard to learn.

            • Mackinz

              To be completely honest, I feel like responding to him and pointing out that, not only is science =/= atheism, but there are atheists who think that there could be a god, even if they don’t believe in it.

              But, hey, he’s a fundie. He doesn’t understand that anything outside of his Iron age book could have happened.

  • Baby_Raptor

    Well, if Christianity isn’t a religion, then Fuck. It doesn’t have any protections under the First Amendment. Discriminate the hell out of them. It’s only fair…They have no issues doing it to us!

    • Gus Snarp

      We can also easily tell which conservative politicians spend all their free time watching Bill O’Reilly.

      • http://atheistlutheran.blogspot.com/ MargueriteF

        Bill O’Reilly does have an amazing talent for creating memes. First it was the “war on Christmas,” now it’s the “Christianity is not a religion.” I have a feeling this one is also going to take on a life of its own, and we’ll see it over and over again.

        • ganner918

          Bill hardly started that meme. It’s been going around the evangelical sorts for a long time. It’s just a philosophy and it’s a relationship! – religions are human created institutions! I heard that one at least 10 years ago.

          • TheBlueCoyote

            And yet those same christians continue to call atheism and science religions.

        • Mackinz

          Don’t forget the tides!

    • Buckley

      I believe there is a trend among the Fundies that they are trying to stake out Christianity along the lines of being Jewish. From that point forward, it’s not just attacking ones religion anymore, now you are being racist because you are attacking their ethnic identity. This is dangerous and needs to be counter attacked with all due haste.

    • Mairianna

      Sorry. One “like” hit wasn’t enough for me: LIKE! LIKE! LIKE!

    • jdm8

      He’s pretty pompous about it too, he’s basically saying that he’s old, therefore he’s correct.

      Religionists seem to be the most opportunistic about their arguments, one week it’s protecting religious freedom, the next, Christianity isn’t a religion. That kind of statement really isn’t new, but it relies on a very narrow meaning of religion that they construct to be able to say that, and yet it sticks around.

      • Matt Davis

        That statement is actually false. I read a theology professor’s essay on the subject of “It’s a relationship, not a religion” and the professor basically says, in no uncertain terms, that it is a religion in every conceivable way that we define religion these days. What’s the narrow meaning they’re using?

        I get the impression they’re saying it so they can jump on the bandwagon of saying they don’t like religion, while pretending theirs isn’t one.

        • jdm8

          The reasoning is very fuzzy, such that it’s hard to explain. Sometimes they say that it’s real, so it’s not just a belief. Sometimes they define religion as a series of rituals they must abide by, and following Jesus doesn’t require rituals.

          Silly stuff like that.

  • Mackinz

    So sad that these people are so religious that they’ve blatantly ignored one of the very reasons they are even allowed to worship. Something they could look up on goddamn Wikipedia.

    • vincent findley

      It’s also the very reason you non-theists are allowed to bitch about it all the time. This could fly in court as long as it’s voluntary and not a mandate.

      • GCT

        Yes, how dare us atheists “bitch” about upholding our (and everyone else’s) civil liberties.

        • AxeGrrl

          Perfectly said :)

          That’s the most ironic thing of all ~ we fight for secularism which would protect Christians as much as anyone else…….

          of course, that means a level-playing-field for ALL, which some Christians deem to be “persecution” of them. *eyeroll*

          • Achron Timeless

            They think that this entire universe was created JUST for humanity. Just for this one planet, and not only that, but the guy who went to the trouble to craft it cares about THEM personally and listens to everything they have to say. Even does favors for them when he’s not too busy.

            Compared to that, being told you have to play fair might actually seem like persecution. That’s… that’s just sad.

      • Mackinz

        Hey the fundie is back!

        Keep your religion out of our secular government. The government is supposed to be secular so that minorities are not suppressed and decisions are as impartial as possible.

        This means prayer too. Blatantly ignoring the blatantly obvious fact that the government and religion (especially Christianity) are supposed to be separate means you’re acting unconstitutionally and should be, in my opinion, unable to hold public office as long as you hold those unconstitutional beliefs.

        • Drew M.

          Aww. I worried we had lost our idiot. Glad to see he’s back!

          Who’s a good boy. Vincent’s a good boy! That’s right, yes he is!

        • Tainda

          Another fundie? Does this mean I’m going to start getting threats again? lol

        • vincent findley

          “We the people are the rightful masters of both congress and the courts, not to overthrow the constitution but to overthrow the men who would pervert the constitution”
          ~Abraham Lincoln

          Which is just what you Godless Stalinists do.

          • Mackinz

            Funny. Pretty much any atheist does not want to “overthrow” the constitution, but, rather “overthrow the men” who would pervert it, such as those who think that the First amendment does not exist and God should be a part of all government decisions, offices, and hirings. Secular organizations are fighting to enforce the Constitution, while people with similar beliefs to yours are fighting to pervert it because God is the master and those who don’t believe in Him believe in Lucifer and will bring upon us Armageddon. That is why homosexuals should not be treated like other humans, slavery should be legal, and women should be regulated to kitchen duty.

            But hey, you equated all atheists with the power-crazy Stalin. Since you have gone down the path of Ad Hominem, Hasty Generalizations, and False Equivocation, I think we’re done here.

      • Baby_Raptor

        Yeah, okay. Feel free to find a court case where it actually *has* “flown.”

        People like you are the reason religion is hemorrhaging followers. Nobody wants to be associated with asshats who deny reality and have no qualms about stepping all over everyone elses’ rights so long as you get to feel special.

        Nor does anyone really want anything to do with a god who would allow such to be done.

      • coyotenose

        I pity anyone whose thinking is so muddled that they equate “following Constitutional law and not discriminating” with “bitching”. They aren’t able to follow the simplest arguments.

      • RobertoTheChi

        The big, bad atheists upholding the laws of our land. We’re such assholes for ” bitching ” about following the law…

    • vincent findley

      Doesn’t hire people from the Star Magazine?

  • Tainda

    Ahhh, the ignorance of the masses never lets me down! I wish it would one day though.

    “Under God” wasn’t in the damned pledge until the 1950s. It makes my blood boil that it’s even in there.

  • Rain

    “This is a government institution, not a secular institution,” Niederwerder said.

    Obviously he doesn’t know what secular means, which he could have found out in an instant if he would have type for two seconds on his laptop, if he weren’t a dinosaur, I mean a Republican fundy.

    • observer

      Maybe he does know what he means, he just doesn’t like it.

    • Witchgawd

      Kinda like how many fundies like to talk about those “Muslim atheists”.

  • http://www.bricewgilbert.blogspot.com Brice Gilbert

    Wow you don’t expect government officials to be so outright in their real reasons do you? It’s hard to believe someone could be that arrogant in public.

  • C Peterson

    Lately, folks are making it awfully easy for FFRF and similar organizations to file and win lawsuits. Actually claiming they are religious. Voting for “non-denominational” prayers and then refusing access to secular speakers.

    As the religious fringe shrinks, the stupidity of the remaining people gets concentrated. Their comments get more idiotic, and they are more likely to be shut down by courts.

    • Achron Timeless

      The only problem is that many of the judges in those courts are religously inclined idiots themselves.

      • C Peterson

        A few perhaps, but not, I think, “many”. The real problem is the idiots on the Supreme Court, but hopefully a couple of them will die inside the next four years.

        • Achron Timeless

          Maybe my view is colored by the realities of the political and judicial systems in Kentucky. They can’t separate their personal views from the legally required views they’re supposed to be upholding.

          I mean, just look at what the state senate did a few days ago. It was snuck through quietly. I didn’t even find out until reading about it on this blog. They passed a law that essentially says you’re free to ignore whatever laws get in the way of your beliefs. Only 7 voted against it. More were absent than voted against it in fact.

          The governor will likely cave and sign it, and the state courts are notorious for declaring people unfit to bring challenge to laws like this. You have to be the perfect person that’s affected a certain way, and have the resources to fight the very steep uphill battle. We still have a lot of religiously motivated laws, some of which have even come under challenge (also mentioned in the past on this blog) and they found loopholes to keep it from ever going to trial.

          So, forgive me for being a little pessimistic.

  • observer

    ” I think that’s asking for His guidance.”

    If you’re so incompetent at this job you need help from an infinite, all-powerful, being wtf do we need you for?

  • onamission5

    Wait… government isn’t a secular institution, and christianity isn’t a religion?

    Maybe if I go back to sleep I will wake up somewhere that isn’t backwards land.

  • http://twitter.com/fmacanadaguy Todd Sampson

    I totally want someone to recite a muslim prayer or hindu prayer in one of those meetings now. Haha.

  • AxeGrrl

    Yet another example of the narcississtic sense of entitlement that (some) Christians are SO used to having, they’re completely blind to it (or completely aware of it and intellectually dishonest).

    Any bets that Clayton would argue that a cross on a gravesite isn’t a “specifically Christian symbol”, too?

  • baal

    I’m having trouble with expectations and the first picture. Amanda Scott doesn’t look like her usual self (at least as see on other pics on the net). The other two might have the right plaques or not as well.

    Bill Clayton, one of the members who voted to have the prayer, apparently has trouble with being decent to folks. He has apologized for questioning a black reporter’s citizenship and suggesting her deportation back to Kenya.

    • http://twitter.com/InMyUnbelief TCC

      It’s the angle of the shot, not the placement of the plaques, I think.

  • Claude

    Meade County rancher Marvin Kammerer was opposed to the idea, suggesting that while Congress opens each session seeking guidance through prayer, it hasn’t worked out in their favor.

    Good one, cowboy.

  • Marco Conti

    Weren’t they trying to secede at some point? Because I think it would be an excellent idea.

    • Derrik Pates

      So was New Jersey. As a South Dakotan, we would be royally screwed if we managed to secede. But so would most states.

  • laotzu

    I’m SO glad to hear Chritianity isn’t a religion! Does that mean they have to start paying taxes now?!

  • LoudGuitr

    This is completely inappropriate and illegal. The only place this would fly is in some backwater shit hole. Apparently South Dakota qualifies.