As I start to write this, it’s been just a few hours since I was insulted by the Tavares City Council. As a board member of the Central Florida Freethought Community (CFFC), I had been invited to give the opening invocation for the Feb. 7 city council meeting.
As I normally do, I encouraged the council to use reason and empathy to make their decisions. I spoke of shared values and of unity. I reminded them of the diverse nature of their constituency.
The city knew my invocation would be secular, lacking any mention of gods or religion. Members of CFFC have given invocations for at least three previous Tavares meetings.
Personally, I have given more than a dozen of the 150 or so invocations that CFFC has provided for our local municipalities over the last 10 years. Most have gone smoothly.
This time, like three of my earlier invocations, city officials decided my invocation wasn’t good enough and added a Christian prayer from a city staff member. This official asked his god to “forgive us for our sins” (something I don’t need or want) and ended “in Jesus’ name.”
Nearly one-third of Americans now identify as religious “nones,” meaning they don’t affiliate with a particular religion. Nones are now the largest single religious group in the U.S.
Our government officials continue to lag in recognizing this. And, like Tavares, they often fail to understand that religious freedom means the government should not use its power to show any preference for one religion over another, or for religion over non-religion.
Being invited to give the invocation should mean that my invocation is the invocation. Nothing should be added. Following my secular invocation with an explicitly Christian prayer says that my call for diversity, inclusivity, dignity, justice, reason, and “respect for the autonomy of every individual” isn’t sufficient for the Tavares City Council. No. It’s not a real meeting for them unless they insert Jesus.
And this is the problem, the fallout, indeed the goal, of Christian Nationalism: to insert Christianity into every aspect of public life. Many officials are explicit about their goals. Many are not. Some, probably, don’t do it consciously. They just think, “Why not have a prayer?” Or “Everyone’s Christian, right? Let’s do it.”
Such thoughts are the antithesis of religious freedom. They are anti-American and they need to be called out and squashed at every turn.
This does not mean government officials are forbidden from exercising their own religious freedom as private citizens. As citizens they are just as free to pray or not as the next person… privately.
Adding prayer in government activities after a perfectly good, inclusive, encouraging invocation, is insulting to me and to every citizen who doesn’t believe in the Christian god. Not to mention that it violates the ideal that government should be neutral on these issues.
Our Constitution exists to protect the rights of the minority from the tyranny of the majority. The minority always understands this better than the majority.
These days, the Christian majority still in power seems to think that being the majority means they get to impose their views on everyone. But the Constitution, freedom, and justice say otherwise.
Tavares owes me, and the nones and non-Christians of Tavares, a public apology, and a promise that it will never again insult a secular invocation with a “corrective” Christian prayer.
Joseph Richardson, who lives in Winter Garden, is a board member of the Central Florida Freethought Community as an advocate for First Amendment issues and helping to educate others on issues of non-theism.