For at least the last four or five decades meetings of the Flagler County Commission began either with the pledge to the flag or with the pledge and a moment of silence. The days of sectarian piety had given way to more respectful deference to our rich diversity of beliefs, doubts and disbeliefs, and to the law: if the First Amendment is to mean anything, Government doesn’t get to choose one over the other.
A year ago Dave Sullivan, newly named chairman, broke that precedent by invoking “God” in the faintest way, to “bless all the citizens,” as he put it. He’d carefully checked his wording with the county attorney beforehand. His few words were in fact quite neutral and especially inclusive. But he’d breached the wall (and drawn the threat of a lawsuit).
Last Monday, that wall came crashing down as his replacement in the chairman’s seat, Donald O’Brien, passed a very lengthy, unquestionably Christian and sharply exclusive prayer to Commissioner Greg Hansen, who read it. “Dear God,” Hansen started, the Calvinism in his voice as if warming to the indictments, “not everything that happens in our world reflects your goodness and grace. You’ve given us freedom to choose and with that freedom sometimes we choose to do evil.” The clunky, weirdly craven sermon went on from there.
The county attorney knew nothing about it. Commissioners hadn’t discussed doing this ahead of time. It certainly wasn’t on the agenda. Even O’Brien says he didn’t know about it until moments before the meeting started, when he found it on his stack of things to read out or pass to other commissioners–a stack Cameron controls, as he does the agenda–like announcements and proclamations. A prayer at a public meeting is neither. In some circumstances, like Monday’s, it’s illegal.
It was the sly handiwork of County Administrator Jerry Cameron, who fancies the demeanor of a patrician prelate whatever the subject, though it wasn’t his place to change commission policy, nor was it one or two commissioners’ place to impose it by fiat, however noble the impulse: the “prayer” was intended to commemorate the 79th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Prayers at government meetings have often exploited the grays of legal penumbras. The First Amendment seems clear enough, as it was to Justice Hugo Black when he wrote the 6-1 decision in 1962 that ended the widespread practice of starting school days with non-denominational prayers: “It is neither sacrilegious nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.” But we’ve never been much as a nation for abiding by Matthew’s admonition against show-off piety. Courts’ more thocratic misreading of the Bill of Rights in recent years has amplified the muezzins.
Seven years ago the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Lakeland City Commission’s habit of opening its meetings with a prayer, but by relying on the city’s willingness to invite any and all denominations to do so if they choose, and abide by a rigorously formal process. Of course, the Flagler County Commission has no such invitation, let alone a process. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2014, in a more divided opinion that’s now controlling law, also approved of opening invocations at meetings, “so long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination” and “any member of the public is welcome in turn to offer an invocation reflecting his or her own convictions.” We don’t know what the Flagler commission would do if a member of the public asked to offer, say, a Muslim or pagan or atheistic invocation. But we do know that it’s never extended the invitation, except to itself. That’s what makes its prayer discriminatory and illegal. After-the-fact correctives don’t cure the presumption of intoning a denominational prayer as an elected official, under the supposed banner of a government for all–not just for Christians who “keep on babbling like pagans” (to quote Matthew again.)
The most objectionable part of the prayer was the wording, which imperiously refers to the concept of “grace” three time, culminating in those final words about the men and women of Pearl Harbor and World War II: “May we never forget them, and may you honor them according to the grace you gave in those days and according to their response to that grace, then and now, in your holy name, we pray, amen.” (I shudder to think what grace Cameron is imagining in firebombings, massacres and holocausts.)
The words resemble those spoken at the school board a little over a year ago when that panel’s chairman ambushed everyone by inviting a pastor who also broke precedent there and delivered a Christian invocation, though a much tamer one than what Hansen read. She claimed it was non-sectarian. But as Palm Coast’s Rabbi Merrill Shapiro, a member of the national board of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State wrote a school board member at the time, “The inclusion of the words ‘May the educators be filled with your grace’ raises a concept that lets each and every non-Christian connected with Flagler County Schools know that they are out of the mainstream, second class citizens. The concept of ‘Grace’ is complex and even some Protestant denominations have different understandings of the nature of Grace.” Cameron wasn’t going to let complexity or respect get in the way of a good snub of people like Shapiro (who, as a matter of disclosure, also chairs the FlaglerLive board of directors).
At least when the school board chairman attempted her little revival her fellow board members, especially Andy Dance, spoke up, and soon rallied against going back to those Christianized openings of meetings, in the name of diversity and inclusion. Dance is now on the county commission. He didn’t say a word this time. He, too, knew nothing of it ahead of time. “From time time even during school board meetings,” he told me, “instances of prayers in memory of lives lost have occurred.” Yes, but in the briefest, most generic, most non-denominational way possible (“we pray for so and so’s family,” etc.). Never in any way that would be mistaken for a specifically Christian prayer, as was the case Monday.
One other disconnect with Cameron’s text stood out, this one not just uncomfortable but rankly crude, considering the proximity of the carnage not invoked: 2,400 American servicemen and civilians were killed at Pearl Harbor in 1941. But on Dec. 1, anno domini 2020, more than 2,600 Americans died of Covid. On Dec. 2, nearly 2,900 died. On Dec. 3, another 2,800 died. On Dec. 4, 2,600 died. Two days after the remembrance of Pearl Harbor, more people died of Covid than on 9/11. Yet to this day the county commission has not once had a word of remembrance for the victims of Covid, and the Cameron encyclical on Monday certainly didn’t.
By all means, remember Pearl Harbor (as it hasn’t been for years, not just on this commission). But it’s not as if there’s a dearth of grief and memory to go around these days, down to our own neighbors, parents, grandparents, spouses, friends, colleagues. Or do they count less–do they garner fewer brownie points to the pious babblers–because they weren’t soldiers? Because some of our own county officials buy into the conspiracy devaluation of Covid? Because it’s easier to mouth medievally-worded commemorations to settled events as distant and placid as the oil supposedly still seeping up from the USS Arizona than it is to reckon with the casualties of a plague here and now that before next year’s 9/11 anniversary will have claimed many more lives than all those lost in World War II?
The school board learned its lesson quickly after that clumsy end-run around pluralism. It self-corrected and resumed its business for the good of all. The way this commission is going, Monday’s born-again guile forebodes a lot of dismantling ahead. And that’s under the chairmanship of Donald O’Brien, the seemingly reasoned moderate, though he assured me that he would “not support it being a regular thing.” That also doesn’t explain how a county administrator is allowed to play fast and loose with county procedures. And Cameron or not (he’ll be gone before long) imagine what it’ll be like next year when Mullah Mullins takes over, or the imam they’ll hire to replace this one.
But that’s what we get when we have militant sanctimony and a jihadist administrator presuming to define our beliefs, our evils, our griefs and our graces. All of which could be avoided by respecting the original moment of silence for what it is intended to be: a meditative moment that leaves us all free with our own thoughts and, if we wish, our prayers. It’s as American, as respectful as it gets. Instead, we get chest-thumping arrogance to the bi-weekly rhythms of Onward Christian Soldiers.