A California State Senator’s Luncheon to Honor Students Begins with Christian Prayer

Over the weekend, California State Senator Roderick D. Wright (a Democrat) hosted a luncheon for high school honors students in his district. The invitation letter, sent out last month, was pretty straightforward and it sounded like a really nice gesture from a local politician:

Bob Smith (a pseudonym) was one of the attendees — his niece was being honored — but when the luncheon started, things got very quiet and very religious.

Beginning at the 0:48 mark in Smith’s video below, you can hear the person introducing Wright — Carson City Councilmember Mike Gipson — leading the crowd in a Christian prayer:

Senator Wright knew this was going to happen. He even mentioned it on his website:

LA Sheriff’s Lieutenant Scott Gage led the students, parents and teachers in the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by an invocation by Carson City Councilmember Mike Gipson.

Typically, government invocations are non-denominational, but I think it’s safe to say the line is crossed when you end the prayer with “Bless them now in Jesus Christ’s name. Amen.”

Smith notes:

There were noticeable Muslim students also at this event yet there was no mention of their faith.

There was obviously at least one atheist in the audience, too. Probably a lot more, though we don’t know for sure. But even if the entire audience comprised of Christians, it wouldn’t make this the appropriate venue for a religious prayer.

This wasn’t billed as a luncheon for Christian students only.

This was an event to honor the best and brightest students in Wright’s district, yet Wright and his colleagues used the time to make non-Christians feel excluded for the crime of not being in the majority faith.

Incidentally, Wright attended Pepperdine University, a private school affiliated with the Churches of Christ.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been alerted.

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.

  • Carpinions

    A perfect example of how religion – especially the dominant flavor of the majority – makes it into everything, even in states we often assume don’t have these problems, and with members of the supposedly “godless” political party.

  • JWH

    Was this event hosted by government officials acting in their personal capacity or in their professional capacity? If it’s not a government event, IMO the violation is one of etiquette, not of the law.

  • Artor

    Hmm… I have mixed feelings on this. While the event was hosted by a gov’t official, and the invitations seem to be printed on gov’t letterhead, a luncheon for honors students hardly seems like an official public meeting, so I don’t think there is a separation issue here. Still, having an Xtian prayer while honoring students, some of whom were Muslim and possibly of other faiths, (or none, of course) is clearly a dick-move. Were I attending, I would have gotten up and walked out, right in the middle of the prayer. I hope Sen. Wright reads the feedback from this event and learns something from it.

  • hailey

    If taxpayer money was used to type up those letters, I’d say it’s government business. It’s unacceptable to have Christian politicians use their time in office to advance their religious beliefs. As for walking out, I’d be right there with you.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    The invitation letter in the image is clearly officially from the Senator as a member of the California State Senate, certainly using the official government title and government logo, and presumably printed and mailed using taxpayer monies… for an event that preferentially promoted one religious view at the exclusion if others.

  • http://www.youtube.com/user/GodVlogger?feature=mhee GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    Yes, you would think that a government-promoted event to honor students and give the students a tour of a state/government college campus would be devoid of religious entanglement.

    But as the subtitle of a wise man’s book once said… “Religion Poisons Everything”.

  • fsm

    I don’t see anywhere on the letter that it was a Xtian event. I am imagining an honor student writing a very compelling essay on what makes her community great, only to realize after she got there that she has no chance of winning the scholarship because she did not mention Jesus Christ in her paper.

  • Sheena

    Due to this event being part of the State of California, prayer for any religion is a problem. It wouldn’t have matter if all the religions were accounted for just as a moment of silence. The gathering was not for religious means or a Christian convention. There should have been on reference to an deity or religion. Wish the children well and move on. If some form of religious veneration just had to be done for those folks to feel they had done right by their faith, then asks anyone AFTER the ceremony if they would like to gather for veneration of a deity.

  • Michael W Busch

    so I don’t think there is a separation issue here.

    As long as he’s using his government position to advocate for a religion, there is.

  • A3Kr0n

    If people don’t start walking out on these bullshit events, they will just keep happening.

  • JET

    California high school honors programs are teeming with members of faiths other than Christianity and many, many non-believers. To assume that these very bright students needed to hear a Christian message is effectively telling them “You may be our best and our brightest, but you fall short in this area.” I’m very disappointed that we would allow one of our representatives to get away with this type of behavior in what is, relatively speaking, a very secular state. I hope that at least one of these students will speak out. Meanwhile, I will be firing off emails to my legislators.

  • Space Cadet

    Why is there a slide showing hands clasped in futility?

  • Gus Snarp

    That is one seriously obnoxious prayer and I can tell you that if my kid was invited to a banquet like that by our state Senator and a city council member delivered an invocation like that, they’d both be hearing from me. If nothing else it is utterly disrespectful to anyone in his district who is not Christian.

  • Gus Snarp

    Listening to that prayer, I might have done just that. It wasn’t even one of those meaningless platitude kind of prayers, this was full on evangelical stick god in for every other word whether it makes sense or not, obnoxious, public display of religiosity.

  • Anna

    Surprising (and disappointing) to see this happen in California, especially given our diverse population and the high number of attendees who would have been from non-Christian backgrounds.

    Carson’s in Los Angeles County, and the religious demographics there are not conducive to Christian prayers. Only 58% reporting affiliation with a religious congregation, and of those, 69% are Catholic. 31% are Jewish or Other.


  • http://squeakysoapbox.com/ Rich Wilson

    I’d stay away from the ‘taxpayer money’ argument. The letters could have been typed by a volunteer, and the paper/envelope/postage could all be donated, and the lunch could be donated.

    It would not matter.

    If the invitation went out with an official State of California letterhead, he was acting in his capacity as a government official. Actual dollars and cents are irrelevant. Every invited student has the right to not be excluded based on their religious belief. The weren’t invited for their Christianity, they were invited for their academics.

    If it ever happens to my kid, you’d better believe I’ll do everything in my power to get the offending party to apologize and promise to not do it again.

  • leonhard

    I initially thought the same thing, but the more I looked at it the more I thought it might be hands clapping.

  • mdoc

    I thought it was funny that the guy on the far right didn’t bow his head until the person sitting next to him poked him. How effing rude!

  • El Bastardo

    Was thinking the exact same thing. Now, I know nothing about him, if he is a “believer” of just couldn’t be arsed, but either way, the “just go along with it, don’t make waves” technique works again.

    I’m pretty sure a lot of Christians feel this way. They don’t mind that people of other faith and no faith exist, but if only they’d pretend to be Christian in public and not make any commotion then everything would be just peachy.