Humanist Invocation: Representing MHA in Local Government

Traditionally City Council meetings are opened with an invocation given by a Christian minister of some sort, and the invocation is usually a prayer. Of course, due to the separation of church and state as enshrined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, many non-believers view such prayers with skepticism.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

While some tend to think that any inclusion of religion with government is a violation of the Establishment Clause, this is not the case as viewed by our nations’ judicial system.

In Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), a Nebraska State Senator challenged his the state legislature’s tradition of opening their sessions with a prayer given by a paid chaplain. The Supreme Court ruled this was constitutional, stating:

To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an “establishment” of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.

Interestingly enough, the Senator was successful in convincing his colleagues to switch to volunteer as opposed to paid invocations, removing public money from the equation.

Further, in Greece v. Galloway, 572 U.S. ____, 134 S. Ct. 1811 (2014), the Court went a step further and declared that they prayer can even be specifically sectarian in nature and still consistent with the Establishment Clause (i.e. invoking the name of Jesus Christ instead of a generic “divine power”).

Elaborating on it’s previous decision in Marsh, the Court stated that:

Prayer that reflects beliefs specific to only some creeds can still serve to solemnize the occasion, so longs as the practice over time is not ‘exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.’

Indeed, our own local government seems to have borrowed language directly from this decision. In the welcome letter they send to all who have been invited to give the invocation, they attach the following guideline:

In the end, the Court basically concluded that religious openings to government meetings do not violate the spirit of the Establishment Clause as long as:

  • local clergy are invited to deliver the prayer (if elected officials are delivering the prayers themselves, the practice is still constitutionally suspect)
  • citizens aren’t forced to participate in the prayer
  • the prayers don’t create a longstanding pattern of denigrating other religions, threatening damnation, or seeking to convert non-adherents (source)

Late last year, the Morganton Humanist Alliance decided that it would be worthwhile to contact our own City Council and request the opportunity to provide a secular invocation. MHA President Isaac Crouch was invited to give the invocation for the first City Council Meeting of 2017.

TRANSCRIPT: Elected officials and hired public servants, my name is Isaac Crouch and I’m the president of the Morganton Humanist Alliance. I’ll start by thanking you for allowing me to be here today. Prior to the formation of our non-profit group earlier last year, there did not exist a community in the area for secular-minded people to fellowship with each other or combine resources and time for works of good. Indeed, many members have expressed worry and caution regarding our public presence due to potential backlash from a highly religious population.
For the most part and to our delight, such a backlash has been non-existent. Without any obstruction, we have planted trees downtown as part of Earth Day, adopted part of the bypass that goes by Catawba Meadows for clean-up, and formed a scholarship for local high school students. We hope 2017 brings even more opportunities for us to give back to the community. Allowing me to give this invocation on behalf of the group illustrates that this local government is not religiously biased, and that means a lot to us moving forward.

If you are a member of the MHA or identify as “secular” please raise your hand.

With that said, I’ll begin with a modified version of an invocation given by a Humanist legislator during the opening of a session of the Arizona House of Representatives.

Most prayers in this room begin with a request to bow your heads. I would like to ask you not to bow your heads. I would like to ask that you take a moment to look around the room at all of the men and women here, in this moment, sharing together this extraordinary experience of being alive and of dedicating ourselves to working toward improving the lives of the people of our city.

This is a room where, as my secular humanist tradition stresses, by the very fact of being human, we have much more in common than we have differences. We share the same spectrum of potential for care, for compassion, for fear, for joy, for love.

Carl Sagan once wrote, ‘For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.’ There is, in the political process, much to bear. In this room, let us cherish and celebrate our shared humanness, our shared capacity for reason and compassion, our shared love for the people of Morganton, for our Constitution and for our democracy — and let us root our policymaking process in these values that are relevant to all citizens regardless of religious belief or nonbelief. In gratitude and in love, in reason and in compassion, let us work together for a better Morganton.

Thank you for your time.