Barker visit, Part 2: roundup and personal reaction

Dan BarkerPhoto source : The Daily Helmsman

Here is Part 2 of my roundup on Dan Barker’s visit on December 3 in Memphis. In this part, I’ll mention a few more highlights as well as my personal reaction and thoughts. For Part I, click here. For an excellent recap of the Dan Barker event, read Oliver’s post (oliver_poe on Twitter) on the Mississippi Atheists website.

I’ve already mentioned in my first post much of his talk about state-church separation, so I will focus on other aspects here. Perhaps the most notable thing about Dan Barker’s talk was the fact that it was a fair-minded plea for state-church separation, filled with anecdotes, examples, and humor that could appeal to both believers and non-believers. While Barker does also talk on things such as Biblical errancy, his goal in this talk was not to promote an atheist agenda but speak on state-church issues.

A nice example of this were Dan’s arguments defending religious believers. (No, that is not a typo.) Unlike the exaggerated image of angry, close-minded atheists held by some believers (and too often painted in the media), Dan Barker made it very clear at several points that religious people do a lot of good in the world.

One believer argued during the Q & A that humans by nature are not altruistic, that we are selfish and introverted by nature. Barker countered that humans are actually very social animals, and that being empathetic and altruistic comes naturally to people. Barker said that Christians, believers of different faiths, as well as nonbelievers, are just as good and kind at heart. Because of this, he argued the human qualities of kindness and generosity “transcend” religion. Instead of just attacking religion, Barker was trying to find common ground among believers and non-believers.

Dan Barker also made it clear that he does not think that the government should go on the offensive against religion, just keep religion out of government. He cited the example of the much-mediatized solstace plaques that have been placed in a few state capitals (including Olympia, Washington; Springfield, Illinois; Madison, Wisconsin). The plaques, which state among other things that “There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell” are only placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation in response to Christmas displays in state capitals.

In response to a questioner about the goal of such plaques, Barker made it clear that they are actually pleased when governments choose to ban all displays during the holiday season, which is what happened in Olympia after the FFRF’s plaque spurred a number of groups to post displays in addition to the Christmas one. Barker argued that banning these diplays was a victory since there shouldn’t be “religion OR irreligion” (emphasis his) in government buildings, including religious prayers.

He argued that non-believers deserve just as much protection as belivers both in Memphis and nationally. Using national statitics, he argued that few politicans would openly come out with policies that would discriminate against Jews, who represent a little over 1% of the population, while many politicians openly oppose atheists and agnostics, who represent between 9-10% of the population. The Memphis City Council, like all government bodies, should represent and support the rights of all citizens, not just believers. Instead of having Christian or other religious prayers at its meetings, the Council should neither support nor attack any religion. (As an atheist, he likened the situation of seeing councilmembers praying to seeing an airline pilot pray. A pilot should be confident in his flying skills, not asking for outside help to fly the plane. Barker joked that if he saw a pilot praying before take-off, he’d get right off the plane.)

Barker also mentioned the Founding Fathers, at a number of junctures: something that believers often do while trying to defend religious incursions into government. Barker mentioned the Jefferson Bible, for which Jefferson literally cut out with a pair of scissors all of the superstitious (miracles, etc.) parts of the New Testament. He said that while some founders were Christians, most were Deists who wanted religion separate from government. He said that as a believer, he used to think of the Pilgrims and Founders as being related to each other, when in reality they were separated by over 100 years and religious beliefs.

In order to address the fact that the Founders didn’t put the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in the Constitution (Jefferson wrote this in a letter), Barker said that the concept is there even if the phrase isn’t. He gave other examples of phrases that aren’t in the Constitution or Bill of Rights that have become commonplace descriptions of the ideas found there: the words “Bill of Rights“, “interstate commerce“, “separation of powers“, and “checks and balances” also are not in the constitution either, but you don’t hear religious people criticizing those who talk about the Bill of Rights saying there is not such thing.

Barker did not completely spare religious teachings in his talk, however. There were a few critiques about religion, the majority of which were in direct response to questions attacking church-state separation or atheism. Dan Barker poked fun at the creation story in the Bible, which includes a talking snake (Barker, who is part Native American, mentioned that his tribe also had a snake myth). He also mentioned that Jesus clearly supports slavery in the New Testament, using it as an example in his parables (saying you should beat some slaves less than others) instead of speaking out against it.

Barker mentioned that Jefferson famously said that finding good in the Bible was like trying to find “diamonds in a dunghill.” Barker also defended his right in the public sphere to say that he finds the teachings of Christianity, and the Christian god, to be morally offensive, in particular the idea that humans are by nature unclean and sinful. He said that real life debunks this notion, that we see headlines of criminals in the paper (of which religious leaders aren’t exempt, he pointed out) because they are exceptions to the norm. If that’s how everyone was, then it wouldn’t be news. He also cited studies have shown that countries that are generally areligious, such as Nordic countries, often rank as the happiest and least plagued by crime and other social problems.

There is more I could comment on, but I think that sums up the main points of interest about the talk that weren’t covered in my first post or Oliver’s post.

I have a personal confession to make: I am somewhat of an admirer of Dan Barker. I was very religious when I was younger, and can identify with Dan Barker’s journey from belief to unbelief. My grandmother thought I would be good pastor material, and I seriously considered becoming a pastor. So when I first heard about Dan Barker, a minister-turned-atheist, his story really hit home with me. I’ve read his book godless, am a faithful (or faithless) listener of Freethought Radio, and have listened to and viewed many of his talks and debates online. So I was very much looking forward to seeing what he had to say about the Memphis situation, and state-church separation in general.

After the talk, I waited in line to meet Dan Barker. He talked to me briefly and was very personable both to me and the people who were in line ahead of me (he even gave out a free copy of his book to someone!). I asked him to sign my copy of his book, and I mentioned to him that I am a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I had a bookmark “Imagine No Religion“, which FFRF had sent me for free when I ordered his book from them. I showed it to him and the person next to me said she thought at first I was trying to give him a religious tract!

Since I am not “out” as an atheist, except to my wife, standing in line in a public venue to meet Dan Barker and have him sign a book entitled “godless” for me was a big, and somewhat frightening, step for me. While I did not come out and say “I am an atheist”, it was the closest I’ve ever come to be open about my atheism in person. I told him my name for him to sign it, but I don’t think anyone there knew or recognized me, so I guess I am still officially in the closet for now. Dan Barker was wearing an “A” pin, part of the Richard Dawkins coming out campaign for atheists. Maybe someday soon I will feel comfortable enough with friends and family, and secure enough in my job, to be an open atheist, too.

Dan Barker calls for Memphis Council to steer clear of prayers, keep church and state separate

Dan BarkerPhoto 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).

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.

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 ), 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.