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 In late June, the Huntsville City Council rescinded Kirk’s invitation to give the invocation when City Hall began receiving phone calls from citizens alarmed at Kirk’s religion.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."
Andrew Seidel, an attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, echoed McCauley’s position in a recent interview with Aleteia.
"We think prayers are entirely unnecessary and divisive at city council chambers," Seidel said. "There is absolutely no need for government to be engaging in these prayers."
In recent months, the Freedom From Religion Foundation has called upon congressional leaders to withdraw their invitation to Pope Francis to address Congress when the Pope visits the United States in 2015. The foundation has also asked two mayors to cancel public plans to welcome the Pontiff, and has requested that congressional leaders hold public hearings into severing the United States’ ambassadorial ties with the Holy See.
Beginning in 2012, the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote letters to the Huntsville City Council threatening to sue the city if it continued to have invocations that were predominantly given by Christian clergy. Seidel said the United States Supreme Court has authorized public prayer at government meetings as long as they are open to members of all faiths.
"That means they can’t deny atheists the right to come give a message, or satanists. They can’t deny a Wiccan to come give a prayer. Those are important things to us," Seidel said.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its decisions on prayer at public government meetings, has not imposed mandatory diversity schemes where municipalities have to abide by quotas of Christian and non-Christian prayers.
"The government identifies a neutral selection process, and the chips then fall where they fall. If you live in a community dominated by a particular religious perspective, the fact that most prayers would be consistent with that perspective doesn’t indicate that the town is favoring one over anybody else. It just reflects the demographics of the community," said Brett Harvey, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian public interest law firm.
Harvey was a member of the legal team that defended the town of Greece, N.Y., against a lawsuit from two women who objected to the town’s practice of beginning legislative sessions with prayers. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in May that the public prayers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Justice Anthony Kennedy said the prayers did not coerce participation by nonadherents.
"By inviting ministers to serve as chaplains for the month, and welcoming them to the front of the room alongside civic leaders, the town is acknowledging the central place that religion, and religious institutions, hold in the lives of those present," Kennedy said.
Harvey told Aleteia that the courts have recognized the centuries-long tradition in the United States of invoking God at public government meetings. Congress has had a chaplain open its legislative sessions for more than 230 years. God is also invoked when the Supreme Court is called to order.
"It’s part of the tradition because it’s proven to be a benefit for public leaders to humble themselves and ask for divine guidance because they recognize that they may not have all the answers themselves," said Harvey, who accused groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, and the American Civil Liberties Union of waging a campaign to silence public prayers.
"If they can’t do that, then they want to impose some sort of obligation to censor public prayer," Harvey said, adding that the Supreme Court’s rulings prohibit government leaders from censoring prayers or forcing people to give invocations from a perspective apart from their own religious understanding.
"So the demands that prayers be purged of any sort of Christian content, or the argument that the government has an obligation to open up meetings to allow anyone and everyone the opportunity to take over the microphone, is simply not true. The Constitution nowhere requires that in any context," Harvey said.
John Buhler, the director of Mission Huntsville, a collaboration of local evangelical churches, told Aleteia that whether people feel included or not can be a consideration when choosing who will give the invocation. However, he argued that the issue is not a constitutional matter.
"If the Council believes it would be best to invite the wisdom, help and blessing of God, it has the right to include an invocation to whomever or whatever the Council believes can provide such," Buhler said in an e-mail message to Aleteia. He added that the Constitution does not require government bodies to seek out all possible religious perspectives for invocations.
"So for me the bigger issue here, and across the land, is whether what has led to this is really the Council’s choice, or if they have been forced to do this by some who say this is what’s required to be constitutional, which is absolutely not the case," Buhler said. "Then, of course, the City Council is responsible for its choice excercised."
Brian Fraga is a daily newspaper reporter who writes from Fall River, Massachusetts.