Dan Barker to visit Memphis, address church-state violations

Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor
from FFRF. Source: http://ffrf.org/radio

Freedom from religion is finally coming to Memphis! Well, I should say: Dan Barker from the Freedom From Religion Foundation is coming; since the City Council here continues its unconstitutional prayers at its official meetings, we’ll have to see if freedom from religion will soon prevail here.

Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF and author of the recent book godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America’s Leading Atheists (foreward by Richard Dawkins), will be coming to the University of Memphis campus on Thursday, December 3, 2009.

Barker, who is a minister-turned-atheist, will be speaking about the importance of state-church separation — a particularly hot issue now in Memphis.

In September, FFRF lodged a complaint with the Memphis City Council over starting its meetings with convocations (read: religious prayers) and giving gifts emblazoned with the city’s official seal to religious leaders (see my original post here and a follow-up here). The controversy made the local media and has sparked some debate in town.

For now the city is continuing the convocations, and Council Chairman Harold Collins has said they would be willing to take the matter to court. It will be interesting to see what Dan Barker has to say on the issue. The FFRF has a long history of championing the rights of non-believers to have church and state separation, including taking a case against the White House faith-based initiatives all the way to the Supreme Court.

Dan Barker’s event will be held at Dec. 3 at 7:00 pm in the Rose Theater (470 University Center: map). For more information, visit the Campus Freethought Association website or contact Jason Grosser. I’ll also be sure to post any news on the Memphis state-church situation, as well as information on Dan Barker’s visit (including a report after the event)

Memphis council ready to go to court over prayers

Official city emblem on the Memphis City Council website. The Council gives cufflinks with this official emblem to Chaplains of the Day.

The Memphis City Council, under fire for allowing prayers “in Jesus’ name” and giving gifts to preachers at its public meetings, would be willing to take the matter to court if challenged, according to an article in Memphis’ top-selling daily newspaper, The Commercial Appeal .

The Commercial Appeal article fills in some of the details of the situation, including the fact that these invocations have been occurring for “almost 18 years” and that the goody bags given to each officially- appointed Chaplain of the Day includes “city emblem cufflinks and necklace pendants for spiritual leaders”.

On the one side is the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), whose co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said “They’re not separating their personal faith with their governmental duty. It’s really crossing the line.”

On the other side is Memphis City Council chairman Harold Collins, who defended the practice, saying “It does not alienate people who are not of faith […] They don’t have to participate in the prayer.” He states that the reason invited chaplains are Christians is because council members are Christian. If FFRF challenges the practice and threatens to sue them, Collins said “We’d have to see them in court.”

The Pro Tem Mayor, Myron Lowery, who is also a former council chairman, has decided not to step into the fray except to say that “I am not going to stop the council from doing what it’s been doing for years and to which I feel is to their benefit.”

I believe the case is even more clear-cut than I originally thought. In addition to the fact that most of the prayers are clearly Christian in nature, and the councilman admits that they invite mostly Christians, it also appears the Council gives these Chaplains cufflinks with the city’s emblem on them. This certainly could be interpreted as city approval of these chaplains, unless they give the cufflinks to anyone who comes by. There are also the “necklace pendants”. I wonder what these “necklace pendants” look like. A cross is a type of pendant, but no mention is made of this in the article.

In any case, it sounds like these gifts are specially given to the chaplains. The Council is using city money to reward preachers from one religion, Christianity. If that isn’t government endorsement of religion, what is?

In general, FFRF diligently pursues cities who make illegal sectarian prayers at town meetings. As I mentioned earlier , such official endorsement of religion has been found to unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. The initial reaction of the council chairman does not sound like they are willing to find a compromise or re-evaluate the council’s practice in light of the allegations. If they’re unwilling to even attempt to fall into constitutional guidelines, it looks like they’re headed for a lawsuit.