Prayer: City of Lakeland 1, Atheists 0

(Originally published by Florida Voices)

There’s something distinctly American about praying at public events – graduations, football games and such like. Having witnessed too many of these prayers to count, I can’t say there is much religious or spiritual about them, but by golly, we Americans can be sure that – unlike the Brits or the Swedes or the Japanese – whenever we assemble, we’re going to be knock, knock, knocking on heaven’s door.

That goes for our governmental meetings as well. Both houses of Congress open each day’s session with prayer. At least 82 of the 99 houses of the states’ legislatures do the same, with virtually all allowing for prayer on some occasion, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

And in the South and Midwest particularly, it is hard to find a city council, county commission or school board that doesn’t have a local pastor on hand to invoke the Almighty’s blessings on the proceedings.

Thanks to a recent ruling from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the City of Lakeland will continue to be one of them. (See a news article here.) The court ruled in the city’s favor in a lawsuit filed in 2010 by Atheists of Florida Inc., challenging the City Commission’s practice of opening its meetings with prayer, contending that it was a de facto endorsement of a particular religion, Christianity. The lawsuit was the culmination of almost two years of complaints and protests on the part of the atheist group.

Full disclosure here: I covered this story for The Ledger of Lakeland from the time Atheists of Florida began its protests until 2011.

The city’s main antagonist is a former lawyer from Pennsylvania named EllenBeth Wachs. Until a recent falling-out with Atheists of Florida, Wachs manned a lonely outpost as director of the Lakeland chapter of the small Tampa-based organization. With occasional support from one or two fellow atheists, Wachs would show up at the commission meetings, remain seated during the prayers instead of standing as requested, complain about the prayers during the public comments period, skip over the “under God” phrase when reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and engage in other mildly disruptive acts. Finally, her group filed the lawsuit.

The commission’s practice had been to invite on a rotating basis pastors from the city and its immediate environs to offer an invocation. Wachs’ lawsuit complained that the invocations inflicted religion on those like her who have no beliefs and that the prayers offered were sectarian – they were invariably Christian. The lawsuit had no chance on the first point, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Marsh v. Chambers that prayers are allowed at legislative meetings provided they do not have a sectarian purpose and efforts are made to ensure all faiths are represented.

The lawsuit’s second point was true, since out of all the city’s houses of worship, only three are non-Christian – one synagogue, one mosque and one Hindu temple, and the mosque and the temple have no installed clergy. In other words, the prayers were sectarian, but they reflected the religious nature of the city. Still, the city altered its policy slightly to ensure it complied with Marsh, and the lawsuit was thrown out at the District and Circuit levels.

Wachs may be a gadfly, but she paid a price in the form of unwarranted harassment. She got the usual complement of hate mail, but then Polk County Sheriff Grady Judd, who had clashed with Wachs on another matter, had Wachs arrested on charges – later dropped – of practicing law without a license simply because Wachs used “Esq.” after her name on a petition. It was a petty, all-too-predictable abuse of authority from the establishment of a traditional county like Polk.

My view is that these prayers are pretty harmless from a civic point of view, which is exactly why they’re problematic from a religious point of view. These prayers are invariably bland, homogenized pabulum intended to reassure the status quo rather than hold it up to the all-revealing light of God. Any prayer that really tapped into the nature of God would clear out a council chamber in seconds.

I recall one pastor saying that if he were ever asked to pray at a football game, it would be the last time because he would say something like, “Lord, forgive us for trivializing the act of prayer in this way.”

To which I say, Amen.


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