When the Supreme Court recently ruled that prayers from a distinct religion could be offered in public meetings, it allowed for Christian prayers in Jesus’ Name. But the ruling also said that prayers from other religions would also be allowed, including the equivalent from atheists. So now atheists are being invited to preside over the ceremonial openings. They are invoking not God, of course, but things like the spirit of goodwill, “self-government, the human condition, intellectual openness and minority viewpoints.”
At a recent meeting of the Osceola County, Fla., board of commissioners, many attendees bowed their heads in silence as they listened to an invocation delivered by an atheist.
“Habit, I guess,” says David Williamson of Central Florida Freethought Community, who, in lieu of calling on the almighty, invoked the spirit of goodwill during his roughly one-minute speech.
Mr. Williamson, the first nonbeliever invited to perform the county ritual, is among a handful of atheists around the country who have given or are scheduled to give invocations before local-government meetings. The speeches have championed self-government, the human condition, intellectual openness and minority viewpoints.At the same time, several town boards that had done away with prayers that include references to specific faiths are trying to revive them.
The groundswell is a reaction to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May that sanctioned prayers before meetings of the town board in Greece, N.Y. The court rejected arguments that the overwhelmingly Christian prayers gave preference to one faith and violated the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from establishing an official religion.
The decision was a blow to nonbeliever activists, but it also created an opportunity. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the 5-4 ruling, emphasized the importance of inclusion, holding the town to a policy that permits “a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist,” to give the invocation.
Would it be better to just not have the public prayers at all? Is it better to have a non-religious public space or a polytheistic pantheon that presents all religions as equally valid? A naked public square, or one crowded with idols? Or are these ceremonial pieties a valid part of a Kingdom-of-the-left civil religion?