Photo source : The Daily Helmsman
Dan Barker, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), spoke out last night in Memphis against the religious convocations given at Memphis City Council meetings, arguing instead for neutrality in government when it comes to religion.
Barker opened on a light note, excusing himself for starting a little late, saying he was looking for someone who could begin the meeting in prayer (he asked if there were any councilmembers who could assist). The rest of his talk, followed by over an hour of Q & A with both supporters and detractors, combined background on state-and-church issues across the country, personal anecdotes, and light-hearted humor.
Barker specifically addressed the Memphis situation several times, explaining that it was wrong on constitutional grounds for the city to include religious prayers in its official procedings since this constitutes government speech in support of religion, something not allowed under the First Amendment. Barker noted that the very phrase of the First Amendment is one restricting the rights of the government in terms of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
In its complaint letter from September, FFRF noted that this year, nearly all of the convocations were done “in Jesus’ name” or with clear references to the Bible. According to Barker, convocations like those given at Memphis council meetings “crossed the line” by subjecting citizens to prayers given by religions, more often than not “in Jesus’ name”. He also noted that the City Council website also contains a biblical reference, further indication that the Council is playing favorites in religion.
He addressed critics who claimed FFRF was trying to advance atheism in government, stating that FFRF is only seeking neutrality. He said as a former minister, he understood where some religious people were coming from, incorrectly seeing as an “attack” what is really constutionally-mandated neutrality in government.Memphis is not being called on to begin meetings with “God is dead”, for example, but simply that neither religion nor irreligion be sanctioned by government officials in the public square.
Barker made a distinction between the public square (where government and citizens meet) and the public sphere (where citizens express themselves). Government officials, just as anyone else, have the right to pray in church, talk about God, or exchange ideas on whatever they want to in the public sphere; however, once they are acting officially in the public square in their jobs as representatives of the people, government officials must remain neutral. Barker pointed out that City Council members are free to pray in their offices before the official session begins, but not during the session itself as an official act of government.
In response to a questioner who said that the founding fathers were religious and did not think government and church should be separate, Barker said that in addition to God not being in the constitution, the founders did not have official prayers at the Constitutional Convention. Ben Franklin made a motion at the convention to have prayers at the meetings, but his motion was not even seconded, much less adopted. Barker said this showed that while some founders in their personal lives were Deists or Christians, most of them wanted to keep church out of the government and let each person decide for themselves according to their own conscience what to believe.
Another questioner wanted to know what FFRF would consider to be an acceptable solution to the current situation, where the City Council holds prayers. Barker said preferably on constitutional grounds, there should be no prayers during government meetings, but he offered at least two possibilities. The Council could have a moment of silence if it were clear that the moment was not stemming from a ploy to get around state-church separation, which Darker said would prove difficult in this case. Another possibility was establishing a system where anyone from any religion or no religion could speak to the assembly on any topic; drawing names from a hat to determine who would speak, for example, instead of the current situation of chaplains being invited to pray.
Much more was discussed during the talk and the Q & A. A summary of additional topics discussed, as well as commentary on the event, will be posted in the next few days, so please check back. In the meantime, here is an article that is appearing in today’s Commercial Appeal (Memphis’ leading daily newspaper) about the meeting, as well as some previous posts as background (1, 2, 3).