Surveys show 25 percent of residents adhere to non-Christian faiths, including paganism, or no religion.
As they have done at the start of every public meeting, members of the Huntsville, Alabama, City Council stood for an invocation when the council president called the Nov. 6 meeting to order.
What is normally a low-key and routine segment drew the attention of news reporters as Blake Kirk, a local Wiccan priest, approached the podium to offer a prayer from his unique religious perspective.
"O gentle goddess and loving god, we thank you for the beauties and the wonders of the day that you have given to us, and for the opportunity we have this evening to assemble here and work together to make Huntsville a better city for all its residents," said Kirk, a priest of the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition of Wicca, an eclectic and modern pagan religion often associated with witches that draws on a wide variety of ancient and 20th century influences.
Kirk’s presence spoke to the growing diversity of the religious landscape in Huntsville, which has historically been a majority Christian community. According to AL.com, recent surveys show that 25 percent of the area’s residents adhere to non-Christian faiths, including paganism, or no religion. The "Huntsville Pagans" Facebook page has been growing in recent weeks, and had 141 members as of Nov. 19.
"Of course, there are dozens and dozens of Christian churches around, but I’m in touch with non-believers, atheists, agnostics and other non-believers. We are getting more people interested in socializing without a god belief or religious component," Kelly McCauley, a Huntsville resident and atheist who serves as a board member of the North Alabama Freethought Association, told Aleteia.
The changing religious demographics, which dovetails with a larger national trend of Americans becoming less religiously observant, can cause friction, as evidenced by some pushback in the Huntsville community when it was announced this past summer that a Wiccan priest would give an invocation. In late June, the Huntsville City Council rescinded Kirk’s invitation to give the invocation when City Hall began receiving phone calls from citizens alarmed at Kirk’s religion. The City Council subsequently changed course and re-invited Kirk.
"The fact that he was uninvited meant somebody—it’s never been clear who it was—someone in authority didn’t feel he was going to say the right kind of thing," McCauley said. "I think that’s wrong. That’s discriminatory. In the City Council chambers, that kind of discrimination shouldn’t be allowed."
The Huntsville City Council, which in the past predominantly invited Christian clergy to give the invocation, has sought to ward off accusations of discrimination, including a threatened lawsuit from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, by asking the local Interfaith Mission Service to assemble a rotating schedule of invocation speakers that include Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, even pagans and atheists.
"They asked IMS because we are a cooperative of congregations and individuals, and we keep tabs on the community’s religious landscape," Jeannie Robison, an Episcopal deacon and executive minister of the Interfaith Mission Service, told Aleteia.
On Sept. 25, McCauley, in opening the Huntsville City Council’s meeting, gave the first atheist-led invocation at a government meeting in Alabama, according to AL.com. McCauley quoted Thomas Jefferson and highlighted the virtues of wisdom, courage, justice and moderation. Despite his high-minded words, McCauley told Aleteia that he preferred that public prayers and invocations be done away with all together.
"My belief is that it doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t actually improve anything," he said. "And it does actually introduce a sense of divisiveness in the community."