The Bunnell City Commission, the Flagler County Commission and the Flagler County School Board should take note: the Brevard County Commission on Tuesday agreed to pay out $490,000 in a settlement to end a lawsuit stemming from the commission illegally starting its meetings with Christian prayers.
They should take note, because just as Brevard is discovering that it doesn’t pay to break the law or play footsies with Christianity under the guise of pandering to the god crowd, Bunnell continues to break the law as it’s done for years, and the Flagler County Commission, under the chairmanship of Dave Sullivan, just started doing so. The school board tried almost exactly what Brevard was doing, but thankfully, more sober heads prevailed.
Before you panic, I’m not saying that all prayers in all circumstances are a bad idea. Well, at government meetings, I am: if we are to stick to the First Amendment in the spirit and the letter that, say, we now stick to the Second, no prayers of any kind would be allowed, no invocation, no moment of silence. Government is secular. End of story.
But that’s not where the courts are. The U.S. Supreme Court has been slouching toward this Gomorrah of beliefs in public settings for a couple of decades, chipping away at Jefferson’s church-state wall every chance it gets. So sticking to where the constitutional line is drawn, the courts have made this much clear: non-denominational invocations at government meetings are OK, and even denominational prayers are OK if the government presenting them does so in a neutral way, meaning that anyone from any belief system, including atheists and Wiccans, are given the chance to present their own invocation if they so choose. It’s not a bad compromise, though it lends itself to the absurd. Look at the beer-canned Festivus pole that goes up next to the nativity scene at the capitol in Tallahassee every Christmas.
That’s where the Brevard commission went wrong. It not only favored Christian ministers. It barred clerics or religious representatives from belief systems it disagreed with, including atheists. In other words the commission was playing god with God, a losing proposition when neither Pope nor mufti nor commissioner nor the cohabitating atheist and rabbi next door know more–or less–than anyone else does about God. Various organizations and individuals sued, the 11th Circuit of appeals ruled for the plaintiff, prayers ended, and now Brevard’s taxpayers have to pony up the damages. All of that could have been avoided had commissioners in Brevard stuck to business and rendered unto their agenda the things which–well, you know the rest.
The chairman of our own school board last August tried to pull a fast one when she invited a pastor to offer an invocation. There was no system in place. It was as arbitrary as it gets. Of course the chairman pretended to be as shocked as Captain Renault by the reaction, which was not favorable–not even by her fellow board members, who had not been informed of the pastor’s near-miraculous appearance at the beginning of the meeting. And when board members further discussed what process they could put in place, the board’s attorney outlined the law’s parameters, and one of the board members suggested, correctly, that maybe this wasn’t the time to turn board meetings into a circus. Bullet dodged.
From every indication West of Eden, God isn’t any less popular in these pastures.
Here’s where the courts have also been very clear, and where Bunnell and now the County Commission are breaking the law: an elected official speaking from the dais at a meeting may not himself, or herself, proffer an invocation, a prayer to God or a screed about atheism’s wonders. That would be placing government in the role of sponsor of a religious point of view, because on the dais, that’s what these officials are: they’re not citizens speaking for themselves but representatives of all the citizens of the jurisdiction they were elected from. Yes, all: heathens, commies, Muslims, Jews, Shintos, vegans and any one of the lost tribe of Democrats in Flagler included.
For several years now Bunnell commissioners have reveled in sticking it to the courts by taking turns at the beginning of meetings and proffering a prayer–not just any prayer, but a Christian prayer. The other day when it was Commissioner John Roger’s turn, he said “god” more times than even God could count in so short a span. But that’s how it is in Bunnell: they do things differently from time to time, and no one is about to sue because the place has fewer inhabitants than Flagler Palm Coast High School.
Not so at the county commission, which still represents about 110,000 people. So it was a surprise when, soon after taking over the chairmanship, the otherwise well-centered Dave Sullivan decided to insert the words “god” and “prayer” into his opening remarks about first responders and servicemen. When I asked him about it he said he wanted to recognize citizens, too, not just first responders, which I thought was a nice touch. But why the god thing?
“I believe that we have a supreme being that we base our moral values on,” he told me, “It’s the same reason it’s in the pledge of allegiance, same reason it’s in Congress, they use the word god, when the chaplain starts the session, that kind of thing.” (Never mind that the God insertion in the pledge is younger than Sullivan himself.)
But he’s missing the point. A chaplain or an invited cleric or non-cleric is not proffering the prayer. Sullivan is. And his belief that “we have a supreme being that we base our moral values on” is his belief, not that of every citizen of this county. He is speaking as a commissioner, and he is praying as one. However well-intentioned, It’s patronizing. It’s pandering. It’s illegal. And it’s an invitation to a costly, unnecessary lawsuit. I don’t think the county attorney, who’s entombed under enough county catastrophes as it is, can handle another detraction, especially not from God–or the ACLU.
It has nothing to do with freedom of religion and everything to do with favoring one particular kind of belief. Put it this way: imagine if Joe Mullins, Sullivan’s fellow-commissioner and resident mullah, suddenly fell off his jackass on the way to Damascus and decided to convert to Islam. Then, in a particularly fluvial commission hearing on Plantation Bay’s sewer plant, Sheikh Mullins announces that the chamber should take a moment of silence while he spreads his little carpet behind the dais, points it to Mecca, and puts in one of his five required prayers to Allah, capping it off with a Georgia-accented Allahu Akbar. I’m not sure that would go over very well, though there would be absolutely zero difference between that stunt and Sullivan’s. It’s a difference of posture, if that.
The only reason the scenario sounds absurd is because Christian prayers as presented today by our own politicians are presumed to be universal and unchallenged. Both are gravely mistaken presumptions. The prayers are most definitely not universal. Our county is full of Hindus, Muslims, Jews, atheists, agnostics, not to mention hell-encircled Catholics like me and blessed pagans like a good friend of mine. And the assumption that the prayers are unchallenged is a bet, and a reckless one at that. Just ask Brevard county commissioners.
And God bless.