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Alabama Town Council Opens With Wicca Invocation

Ryan-Karolak-CC
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Surveys show 25 percent of residents adhere to non-Christian faiths, including paganism, or no religion.

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.

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