Memphis does work “in Jesus’ name”, in violation of Constitution


Image Source: Tennessee Department of Tourism Development

Memphis, TN is the latest city to come under scrutiny for invocations “in Jesus’ name” at City Council sessions. The Memphis City Council joins a growing list of institutions which the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) has sent complaints to due to their unconstitutional endorsement of religion during official government business.

It is fairly common practice for city councils in the United States to open their sessions with an “invocation”. The Supreme Court has held that such invocations must non-denominational in nature. In other words, a government institution is not supposed to pray to Jesus or Mohammad, or favor one congregation or another, since this would appear to be supporting one religion over another and promoting belief over unbelief.

In practice, invocations at government meetings all too often turn into openly Christian prayers. Such practices clearly go against the Establishment Clause of the Constitution (which Thomas Jefferson described as “a wall of separation between Church and State”). As a resident of the Mid-South, I am sad to say that Memphis is unfortunately no exception.

Here are some examples of objectionable quotes and occurrences at Memphis City Council meetings this year which clearly seem to show the city choosing sides in religion. From FFRF’s News Release and letter of complaint ,

  • The Memphis City Council, at each of its general meetings, names an official “Chaplain of the Day”, giving them a certificate and a “goody bag” of gifts that includes cuff links.
  • Repeated references to praying “Jesus’ name” during and at the end of invocations, clearly showing a preference for Christianity.
  • A call by one Chaplain of the Day on June 2nd saying that “These legislative leaders you have allowed to sit at the table of decision now acknowledge the inability within themselves to fix these ills of society and they now recognize and depend on your sufficiency,” followed later by the Lord’s Prayer.
  • A quote from Psalms saying that “The Lord knows the ways of the righteous: but the way of the ungodly shall perish,” ending the invocation by saying “in the name of Jesus Christ we pray”.

These examples, among many others like them, clearly show that the Memphis City Council is not only preferring religion over non-religion, but Christianity over other faiths. The U.S. Supreme Court has held that invocational prayers at government meetings cannot be “exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith, or belief” (Marsh v. Chambers , as quoted by FFRF). Under this ruling, the invocations cited by FFRF clearly seem to violate the Constitution.

I also have looked into this somewhat (audio archives of all Memphis City Council meetings can be found at http://memphis.granicus.com/ViewPublisher.php?view_id=2 ), and it’s clear that city council members are not only aware of these unconstitutional appeals to Christianity made by the Chaplains of the Day (who the City Council officially names), but council members sometimes even praise the Chaplains after making such statements.

The message is clear: as far as the council is concerned, Memphis is a Christian city. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking that Memphis, or any other city, should not be pushing anyone’s religion on city time and on the city’s dime. Just as churchgoers would not want council members to go into churches to make sermons about city ordinances, why should civic-minded Jews, Buddhists, or atheists be subjected to Christian dogma at city council meetings?

Memphis City Council joins the list of other government bodies (The Wisconsin Assembly and the city councils of Toledo, OH and Lodi, CA , among others) caught mixing religion with official business. It will be interesting to see what Memphis’ response to these clear violations will be. I’ll be sure to post any updates to this story as I find out about them.

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