Prayers Pass Panel

Let’s put to rest the trope that the Ninth Circuit is a court where out-of-control liberal activist judges run amok on all that is legal, just, and true. That notion is simply false. A case from the Ninth Circuit yesterday upheld the power of a city near where I live to hold sectarian invocations before City Council meetings. I break it all down for you after the jump.

Background Law

The applicable part of the First Amendment is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…” These clauses have been “incorporated” through the Fourteenth Amendment to apply state-level governmental decisions. See Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925) (free speech clause); Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940) (free exercise clause); Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) (establishment clause).

The three-prong test in Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602 (1971), requires a law, policy or practice of a state or governmental entity to meet a three-part test. If it fails any of these three layers of analysis, it is an Establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment. “First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose; second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion; finally, the statute must not foster ‘an excessive government entanglement with religion.'” Lemon, supra, at 612-613. What is an “excessive government entanglement with religion,” you ask? Good question. That requires a case-by-case analysis.

In the case of  Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983), a state legislator in Nebraska challenged the legislature’s practice of opening its sessions with a non-sectarian prayer. Eschewing analysis of the Lemon test, the Court instead reasoned that since the First Congress both passed what became the First Amendment, and hired clergy to deliver invocations. So since they must have known what they were doing, since they couldn’t possibly have suffered from any cognitive dissonance. Therefore, Nebraska legislature’s practice of delivering invocations didn’t violate the Establishment clause. A big factor was that the chaplain did not specifically reference a specific deity.

Finally, in County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573 (1989) there was a challenge to a county’s display of a crèche, a Christmas tree, and a menorah on public space in downtown Pittsburgh during the holiday season. The crèche violated the Establishment clause, but the menorah and tree display did not, because the crèche failed the Lemon test by having the primary effect or intent of advancing religion but the display in its “particular physical setting” merely commemorated the arrival of the holiday season.

The Invocation Policy, on Paper and in Practice

The City of Lancaster, California, had long had an informal practice of delivery of invocations before meetings of the city council. Someone would call a local cleric and invite (almost always) him to deliver an invocation. Some invocations explicitly referred to divine entities by name (almost always to Jesus Christ) and others did not. I’ve no statistics. No one kept any lists. For a time, the mayor was a minister himself, and he delivered his own invocations during and after his term.

Under that mayor’s successor, a more formal invocation policy was adopted at the urging of a religious-rights advocacy group. At the same time the formal policy was adopted, the mayor had passed a resolution adopting “IN GOD WE TRUST” as the city’s motto, and then bought with his own money some foot-high lettering to place behind the dias where the council sits, reading “IN GOD WE TRUST” prominently and in all capital letters.

The policy directs the city clerk to annually scour the phone book for the addresses of houses of worship in the city limits. Every address thus generated is sent a form letter, inviting the leader of that congregation to indicate their interest in participating. From among those who respond, a list is generated. A name from that list is randomly selected and invited to deliver the invocation. The visiting minister is told that he (it’s still almost always a “he”) can pray however he chooses, including invoking the names of specific divine entities should he so choose, but he is encouraged to not evangelize nor disparage other religions. The speakers are not paid anything.

When it was first formally implemented in August of 2009, only a few churches participated, including one church thought to be politically aligned with the control group on the Council. So for a couple of months there were only ministers from four or five local churches delivering invocations. The policy was amended to limit the number of times any one church could be represented to three per year. After a few missteps and false starts in the first few months of the formal policy, it now seems to be in practice what is stated on paper.

All but two of the invocations ever given have been by Christian religious leaders. The three times non-Christian invocations were given in the history of this practice, one was given by a Girl Scout who was put on the spot by the mayor and who simply failed to mention any deity at all, and the others were given by a Sikh Granthi who was invited from out of the city specially to deliver the invocation after an informal challenge to the policy was made but before the lawsuit was filed; the second time was shortly after a city council member said something very, very inappropriate about Muslims, so the mayor reached out to a local mosque and invited it to send a representative to deliver a Muslim invocation. One of the few female pastors to speak more than once in the two-year period of time between August 2009 and August 2011 that I studied appears to me to be much more new agey than Christian.

On a few occasions, there has been no cleric available either because the invited cleric didn’t make it for whatever reason or there was no eligible cleric on call. When that happens, the Mayor either delivers the invocation himself, or invites someone else to do so. With the exception of the Girl Scout, every spontaneously-designated invocation has been explicit about invoking the name of Jesus. As far as I can tell, only on one occasion since 2009 has the invocation been skipped entirely, and that was for an emergency meeting called on short notice.

Anything Odd About The Actual Lawyers?

I notice that the only amicus briefs filed before the Ninth Circuit were filed by religious rights advocacy groups. No church-state separation advocacy groups filed amicus briefs. Groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and the ACLU did not participate, even as amici. To explain why that is the case would require speculation on my part.

If you want to hear directly from the actual lawyer who did argue against this policy in this case, he was interviewed on a local political talk radio station, in opposition to Matt Staver from yet another social conservative advocacy group. Mr. Diamond, the plaintiff’s counsel, comes across rather well in my opinion (bear in mind, the host is favorable to him, and I’m biased in favor the position he’s arguing for).

The Ninth Circuit Panel Decision

So the panel’s analysis of the case law resolved, at its core, in this sentence:

…though Allegheny, commented on Marsh, it did not—because, in dicta, it could not—supplant Marsh or restrict its scope.

There’s ample case law supporting that statement. Principled or not, Marsh is the law. I’m not sure I’d call the applicable text of Allegheny quite so easily dismissed as mere “dicta,” though:

Whether the key word is “endorsement,” “favoritism,” or “promotion,” the essential principle remains the same. The Establishment Clause, at the very least, prohibits government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from “making adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.” Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. at 687 (O’CONNOR, J., concurring). Allegheny, at 593-594.

This does not look like dicta to me. It is a restatement of existing law, which commanded a majority of votes and therefore is binding precedent. It is true, however, that it does not explicitly overrule the previous precedent of Marsh v. Chambers. And this, along with another passage in a case called Santa Fe Independent School District v. Doe, 530 U.S. 290 (2000), lead me to concude that twice, a majority of the Supreme Court has restated the test for violation of the Establishment clause as the “endorsement test” from Lynch referred to in the section of Allegheny quoted above. Some scholars agree with this conclusion and others disagree with it; including active jurists at every level of the judiciary.

I don’t see how you get around a sectarian minister being invited by a legislative body, and put on that legislative body’s official agenda, and in the case of Congress (or Nebraska) being paid by the legislature, for the sole purpose of delivering prayers, and don’t conclude that there is at least some degree of approval of the religious message the legislative body has gone out of its way to put before the public.

To say “Well, it’s just a tradition, it doesn’t really mean we’re endorsing the religious content,” is to say that you would be perfectly happy without it. And a policy structured as circuitously and carefully as the city of Lancaster’s is clearly intended to create a “safe space” for religious content in the City Council’s agenda. Which on its face is contrary to Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97, 103-14 (1968):

Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. It may not be hostile to any religion or to the advocacy of no-religion, and it may not aid, foster, or promote one religion or religious theory against another or even against the militant opposite. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.

It’s largely in reaction to this holding that the policy goes to some length to try and conceal the City from agency about who delivers the invocations and what is said within them. It just happens that only Christian ministers choose to participate in the program, so it just happens that functionally all the invocations are Christian. And it just happens that functionally all of those invocations recite the name of Jesus, sometimes identified as Jesus Christ, and sometimes Jesus identified as the Son of God or God Himself.

The Ninth Circuit panel decision does not see a problem with this — the panel indicates, in the face of no contrary evidence, that this is reflective of the demographics of the community and the self-selection process. More about that in a moment.

So how do you get around the seemingly blindingly obvious fact that legislative prayer flunks the Lemon test? Special pleading. No, really.

To be sure, had Marsh applied Lemon, then the question whether Nebraska had advanced Christianity would have depended on the prayers’ effects and the reasonable observer’s perceptions. And indeed, the Court might well have determined, as had the Eighth Circuit, that “[t]hose who have observed or participated in Nebraska’s legislative process over the last sixteen years would have to conclude that the legislature has an official view on religion which is expressed by its minister and promoted with the use of state funds.” Chambers v. Marsh, 675 F.2d 228, 235 (8th Cir. 1982),rev’d, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). Instead, the Court left Lemon on the shelf, upholding Nebraska’s practice solely on the basis of original intent, tradition, and the absence of evidence suggesting a state-led effort to proselytize, advance, or disparage any one religion. (slip op. at 21-22, some internal citations omitted.)

The only times any explicitly non-Christian has ever delivered the invocation since the policy was implemented, it was by explicit deviation from the policy at the direction of the mayor, in response to political pressure. This is not addressed at all. I may have to give the panel a pass on that — after all, if a fact is not discussed in the trial court record, then the appellate court can’t review it, and that fact was not discussed at any length at all at the trial court.

A Neutral Policy?

As it happens that virtually every house of worship in the city is Christian (if Mormons are included in the definition of Christianity, a topic which is quietly and politely, but firmly, debated amongst some folks in these parts who find that particular topic to be of great importance). The three major phone books list about a hundred and fifty Christian churches, and only five operating houses of worship from non-Christian religions within the ZIP codes assigned to the city of Lancaster. This has been the case for a long time.

So although the policy looks neutral on its face — all houses of worship in and near the city are extended invitations — the neutral-looking criterion for inclusion is really not all that neutral, and someone with knowledge of the area would not expect it to be.

What’s more, because the policy focuses on houses of worship established enough to have entries in the phone book, this will exclude startup congregations, informal congregations, and other groups who aren’t well-established enough to have a permanent building on a plot of land they can call their own.

I know for a fact that there’s a thriving pagan/Wiccan community in these parts, from having run across some of that community’s leaders from time to time. They meet informally in one anothers’ homes, conduct worship services in wilderness settings, and the closest thing to a physical building for congregation that they have is a retail shop that sells crystals and herbs and beads and books. This retail shop is not a “house of worship,” it’s a for-profit store.

I know for a fact that there’s a thriving Sikh community around here, too. They’ve been trying in fits and starts to complete a worship and community center, interestingly right next to the Catholic high school that I attended as a teenager. The construction on this community center is not done yet, and the building is not operational. When it is, it’ll be in the city limits, but for now, there is no formal Sikh house of worship in operation here, that I know of.

I have friends who are Jains. Many other Jains are in the area. No house of worship. There’s two different kinds of Buddhists (Zen and Mahayana) but their houses of worship are in a neighboring city and would not be included in the “to invite” list. Same thing for the mosques; there are two in the area and both are near where the cities meet, but the second one is technically in the other city.

And then there’s my own community, of skeptics, freethinkers, and other variants from the “nonbeliever” camp. Even if we were to be well-organized and well-financed enough to do more than meet once a month to talk about social and cultural topics in a mediocre restaurant, which we’re not, we’re still a long way away from having the equivalent of a church, and it wouldn’t be a house of worship even if we had one — it would be a house of non-worship. Maybe they’d include us anyway but as I argue in the last section below, I’d resist the notion that even were we to be considered for inclusion in the invocations list, I’d urge that we not participate.

So the policy appears neutral but may not actually be. In this city, pretty much only Chrisitans have houses of worship. So a policy that uses “houses of worship in the city” as its standard is casting a net to a pool of about 150 Christian churches, two Jewish temples and/or synagogues, and one mosque. From there, they have to respond and opt in. An author of the policy who knew a thing to two about the demographics in the community (or, hell, one who took ten minutes to do a little research in the phone book the way I did) would realize that such a policy would produce a pool consisting almost exclusively of Christian speakers.

Do Demographics Matter?

The next question is, was the Ninth Circuit panel right that the dominance of Christians on the speaker list is reflective of the local demographics? I think it is; it’s hard to argue with the notion that Christianity is an overwhelmingly popular religion in this nation.

But I question if it is even relevant. Under the endorsement standard I describe above, the community could be 99.995% Christian and it’s still irrelevant — the city, as a governmental entity, must not “appear [] to take a position on questions of religious belief” or “mak[e] adherence to a religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.” CityCouncilPraysWhen every meeting of the council is begun with a Christian prayer that the members of the council have gone out of their way to make sure they can hear, and the mayor is standing there in front of foot-high letters reading “IN GOD WE TRUST” that he paid for himself,* it’s a little hard for me to believe that were I to go before that council and announce my nonbelief, I wouldn’t be thought of as a peg or two lower on the pecking order than everyone else.

Besides, under either the endorsement test or the Lemon test, the popularity of a prevailing religion is completely irrelevant. The problem with the display of official religion becomes easier to see if the Established religion is an unpopular one, like Islam, or is “nonreligion” like my skepticism, which the government can’t favor any more than it can favor religion. If I were the Mayor and I had foot-high letters posted behind the City Council reading “NO EVIDENCE FOR GOD” a Christian might feel a little bit off-balance when coming before her government, in a way she ought not to have to.

The Law Is The Law Even If You Don’t Like It

So the panel decision boils down to:

Hey, Marsh v. Chambers is still good law; Allegheny v. ACLU didn’t overrule it. And Marsh is a special case, so forty-five years of precedent from Lemon v. Kurtzman on just don’t apply in this case. Because we said so, that’s why. That means the City Council can choose to have invocations if it wants to. And no one can tell a cleric how to pray. Sure, it’s worked out to be all Christian prayers in Lancaster, but that’s because everyone there, or at least everyone there who chooses to participate in this program, is Christian. Ergo, no Establishment Clause violation. It sucks to be you, plaintiffs.

It seems likely there will be a request for a hearing before the Ninth Circuit en banc, which would be before a panel of eleven judges instead of three. Or a petition for certiorari directly to the U.S. Supreme Court. Until then, though, the law of the case is that there is no Constitutional impediment to the city having invocations before it meets to govern itself.

But consider this: just because the City can have these invocations doesn’t mean that it should.

Sure, it’s only a minute or two. Not a lot of time taken away from the city’s ability to govern itself, which for the most part it does reasonably well to quite well. But it’s obviously important to a lot of people that this time be taken, and that it be taken in this way, or they wouldn’t have gone to all the trouble of writing so circuitous a policy as this, and the political leaders of the city wouldn’t have seen advantage to themselves in spending so much taxpayer money defending it through two years of legal challenges.

It’s not a question of religious freedom, and it never was. If the invocations were taken away, either by the city reversing its policy voluntarily, the voters overruling it by initiative, or a court enjoining it, there would still be nothing at all to prevent anyone from praying. The mayor and his co-religionists could pray before the meeting all they wanted. There’s no order preventing anyone from going to a church. It would only mean there wouldn’t be a prayer on the city council’s agenda and occurring during its meetings.

It’s not a question of freedom of speech, and it never was. There’s public comment time available to anyone at the start of the city council meetings, and no one would have a gripe with an individual citizen using that public comment time to pray if they chose. There would not be any indication that the city wanted prayer, that the city invited prayer, if that’s what was going on.

It’s a question of inclusiveness and appropriateness. The government should be inclusive. City Hall is not a church. The government is not a religious institution. Nor are religious institutions governments. Maybe the Constitution doesn’t require so sharp and strong a line of separation between church and state as I would prefer. But there should still be such a line drawn. A church is for believers, a community of people who share a faith and a creed. Prayer is appropriate in a church, or in a home. It’s not appropriate in a governmental institution. Not everyone is a believer. The government should be for everyone.

* EDIT: After publishing the post, I came across the above picture of the mayor and two council members during an actual invocation. This is what it looks like at the start of basically every City Council meeting. That’s the mayor in the middle of the picture, the guy with the white beard. In his day job, he’s a very accomplished personal injury attorney, a fact which some people find very interesting when considering his political actions.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.


  1. I would argue that the 9th Circuit is both one of the most liberal and one of the most conservative courts of appeal in the United States.

    The problem with the 9th is that it is huge and all presidents seem to have put their most ideological picks on the 9th circuit. For every Stephen Reinhart, their is a Judge Bea or other right-wing Bush II appointee. So it is really the luck of the draw for parties about whether they get the liberal panel or the conservative panel.

    Now I can’t imagine this decision being upheld if the case is reheard en banc.

    • So does anyone have information on the ideological leanings of the specific three judges that heard this case?

      • The judge who wrote the opinion is a Bush II appointee and super-conservative.

      • Alfred T. Goodwin is a Senior Judge, meaning he’s completed enough service to have his full retirement vest, and rather than resign and retire, he’s working on what amounts to a
        “part-time basis.” I put “part-time” in quotes because it’s difficult for me to imagine even the lighter workload takes less than 40 hours a week to handle. He was appointed by President Nixon in 1969, and his most famous recent opinion in this field was Newdow v. Elk Grove Unified School District. Judge Goodwin ruled for a panel in that case that requiring public school students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance including the phrase “under God” violated the Establishment Clause.

        Diarmuid Fionntain O’Scannlain was the only full member of the Ninth Circuit on this panel. I cannot find any evidence to impeach NewDealer’s description of him — a Reagan appointee, he was a founding director of Young Americans for Freedom. His Honor Judge O’Scannlain is quite conservative.

        Jack Zouhary is a District Judge sitting on this panel by designation. His usual court is a trial-level Federal court in Ohio. Federal judges often serve in judicial capacities other than their usual assignments, when there is too much work to do or, as might have happened here, one judge assigned to the case by random draw at the Ninth Circuit Clerk’s office indicated a conflict of interest or other reason to recuse herself (we’ve no way of knowing whether that happened). He’s a Bush II appointee, and is most famous for his exploration of prisoner parole reform.

      • I’m not familiar enough with the judges or their paper trails to speak to the specifics of their ideological positions or leanings on any array of subjects, but (fwiw):

        Judge Goodwin is a Senior Circuit Judge appointed by Nixon and has been on the Ninth Circuit since 1971; he previously was a justice of the Supreme Court of Oregon (appointed by then-Governor Republican Mark Hatfield).

        Judge O’Scannlain (who wrote the opinion) is a a Reagan nominee who has been on the Ninth Circuit since 1986. Wikipedia informs me that he “attended the founding conference of Young Americans for Freedom, held at William F. Buckley, Jr.’s estate in Sharon, Connecticut. At that conference O’Scannlain was elected to serve on YAF’s original Board of Directors.”

        Judge Zouhary is actually a District Judge from the Northern District of Ohio, sitting on this appellate panel by designation. He was nominated to the District Court in 2005 by Goerge W. Bush; he had previously been appointed by Republican Governor Bob Taft to the Court of Common Pleas for Lucas County, Ohio.

  2. The crèche violated the Establishment clause, but the menorah and tree display did not, because the crèche failed the Lemon test by having the primary effect or intent of advancing religion but the display in its “particular physical setting” merely commemorated the arrival of the holiday season.

    I don’t understand this at all. If a menorah is appropriate under the Establishment clause, then so is a crèche. They’re both religious displays.

    • That’s because you’re not an art critic wearing a black robe to understand the difference between a menorah over here and a creche over there. Supreme Court Justices are people who Just Know that sort of thing.

    • The Christmas Tree fails the Lemon test. It’s actually a pagan symbol, perhaps Druidic. Lots of serious Christians won’t have a tree in their home for that reason. The story of the menorah contains a miracle.

      I say get rid of ’em all. It’s bad for civic life, worse for religion. Bad as it is to have some cheezy little chaplain opening a session of government, and that’s very bad indeed, it’s worse when civic authorities come up all cuddlesome, trying to gin up political support in religious communities.

      That’s what went wrong in Iraq, by the way. Because the country was allowed to create religious political parties, what had begun as entirely healthy politics was allowed to transmogrify into a civil war.

      • It’s worse when civic authorities come up all cuddlesome, trying to gin up political support in religious communities.

        Amen to that. And in the long run, it usually works out worse for the religious community.

        • One must be extra-pithy when doing such things. I’m sure Brother Blaise would indeed be more than up to such a task, but I feel it’s when he works up a good strong head of steam first that he truly scintillates.

  3. This sort of case just burns my bacon. Religion is the camel constantly pushing its nose into the tent of civil government. It’s everywhere.

    But I did like that unctuous little chaplain Senate Chaplain Barry Black who led the opening prayer the other day with these words: “Lord, save us from ourselves.”

    Now if had been me up there praying, it would have been “Lord, smite these folks with fire from heaven, that this nation may be preserved from further harm. We cry out to Thee for justice for there is no justice to be had in this chamber, nor good laws. As Thou didst judge the people of Sodom, finding there were not ten good men within it that thou shouldst save it, push Thou the Smite Button upon thy Heavenly Console and reduce these sinners to flaming hunks of lard, every one.”

    • I nominate that the League acquire a mail drop in this location, form a legal church, get our number in the phone book, and let Blaise accept our invitation.

      It would be an epic troll.

  4. Excellent piece, Burt. You make the information incredibly accessible to laypeople like myself. Much appreciation!

    • Seconded. I have a little fantasy: editing Brother Likko’s work into a book of essays. I’m convinced it would sell like hotcakes. He has a knack for what preachers call Exegesis.

      One of my heroes, a man named W Edwards Deming, made an brilliant career of “translating” the work of Walter Shewhart. Deming said Shewhart had an “uncanny ability to make things difficult.”

      Brother Likko does the same for us.

  5. To say “Well, it’s just a tradition, it doesn’t really mean we’re endorsing the religious content,” is to say that you would be perfectly happy without it.

    For the record, when I say that something is just a tradition, I doesn’t necessarily mean that I’d be perfectly happy without it.

    • I’m going to have to admit that I edited this down to a place I lost a substantive step.

      We have a prayer because it’s traditional to have a prayer. The religious content isn’t why we value it. So if the religious content weren’t there that would be OK as long as the tradition were observed.

      For the people who care about invocations I suspect they might say these words but not be happy if they became reality.

      • Fair enough. I don’t know that their happiness is evidence, one way or another, though.

        I’ll use this argument again: as an atheist, I can’t tell the difference between an honest-to-goodness public prayer and a public speech that is pretending to be a prayer.

        It seems to me that the latter is absolutely and 100% covered by the First Amendment and the former may or may not be, depending on the content of the speech.

        As such, I don’t see why getting rid of these public speeches isn’t seen as a hell of a lot dicier than it seems to be in practice? Does the existence of a Theos change the balance that much?

        • “As such, I don’t see why getting rid of these public speeches isn’t seen as a hell of a lot dicier than it seems to be in practice?”

          Do you mean that the banning of such speeches may be in violation of the “free speech” clause of the 1st?

          • Whether the speech is a good-faith religious exercise or hypocritical public posturing, it’s still free speech by a private actor. A minister who uses public comment time to lead a prayer for all willing participants is acting on her own initiative. There’s no suggestion that the public entity endorses that.

            Speech by a public actor is a different kettle of fish. When a public entity invites a minister to lead a prayer, it’s endorsing that prayer.

            Alas, Wednesday’s decision indicates that this panel of the Ninth Circuit believes that statement is legally irrelevant (while passing no opinion as to whether it is true), and they speak for the Court until further notice.

          • When someone is acting in an official capacity for a govenrment agency, they are not a person they are The Government. Governments do not have rights, they have powers. And the US government does not have the power to entangle itself with religion.

          • Speech by a public actor is a different kettle of fish. When a public entity invites a minister to lead a prayer, it’s endorsing that prayer.

            If it invites a minister to give a speech, is it endorsing that speech?

            Let’s look at the flip side of this: There are a lot of po-mo religions out there. The fact that they don’t have the superficial trappings that yet burden the silly theistic religions is usually enough to get folks to not mind government endorsement of same… but there seems to be a weird sense dynamic here. “You must be at least this subtle to give your sermon.”

          • “If it invites a minister to give a speech, is it endorsing that speech?”

            To a large degree, yes. If that minister stands up there and says that Jews drink the blood of Christians, you don’t think people are going to say, “Jay… what the fish? Why’d you pick that guy?!?!” Even if you had no idea he’d say that?

            “There are a lot of po-mo religions out there.”

            What does “po-mo” mean?

          • If I went back a mere 50 years ago and provided examples of a handful of religious leaders giving political speeches, would that mean much of anything?

            In this case, “po-mo” means “post-modern”.

          • I don’t understand the significance of this. Religious leaders are allowed to speak on political issues, just like everyone else. You don’t stop being a Democrat or a Republican or whatever when you put on a minister’s collar. And public officials are allowed to participate in religious activities, just like everyone else. You don’t stop being a Catholic or a Muslim or whatever when you get elected to a public office.

            My objection is to the government endorsing religious activity. Our man in New Zealand gets it exactly right: when you are discharging a public function, you aren’t acting in your personal capacity. In a very real sense, you personify the government. And the government must be neutral with regards to matters of religion.

          • Here’s where I see the significance:

            To what extent is “pushing for equality” a religious act?

            (I mean, my support for Same-Sex Marriage recognition by the government is a lot more “religious”, for lack of a better term, than “secular”, for lack of a better term. My support for Liberty in general, for that matter, is pretty religious. I just know better than to use obvious religious trappings.)

          • JB,

            Well, now you’re getting into my territory, where I ask how it is that we define a religion.

            If Neo-Nazis decided that their ideology was more than just a philosophy or world view but was, in fact, a religion. And they opened up a house of worship in Lancaster. Would the city council allow them to offer a prayer? Would we extend anti-discrimination laws to Neo-Nazis and say that companies can’t fire them specifically for wearing swastika necklaces?

            All this gives me a headache and makes me wish everyone would just chill the fish out…

          • You keep using those words. I do not think they mean what you think they mean.

            Fair enough. I do think that, someday, you’ll see something that will make you say “dang, that’s almost a religious ceremony” about some little public (government sanctioned, even!) event.

            I hope, in that moment, you’ll remember my using words differently than you’d expect me to.

            I rather expect that you’ll continue to see a *LOT* more examples after seeing that first one.

          • JB,

            Are you using big R Religious or little r religious?

            In case it isn’t clear…

            Mohammed washes his hands Religiously because his faith calls for rituals of purification before entering the mosque*.

            Jenny washes her hands religiously because she is afraid of getting sick.

            Is it possible that religious things can become Religious things? Sure… but that takes us to the place where my head starts hurting.

            * If this fails to accurately capture this ceremony, I both apologize in advance and welcome correction.

          • Kazzy, as an atheist, I sometimes have trouble distinguishing between upper and lower case.

  6. Hey y’alls. Scroll on up about a quarter of the way up from the end of the OP; I found a picture of the city council during an invocation with the motto behind them. It gives you at least an idea of the context of being there in person.

    • It’d be interesting to show that picture, absent context (ideally with the whole phrase visible) and ask them what they think they are seeing.

      I’d be curious to see how many pick “religious service” and how many say “Council Meeting”.

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