This is the APPLE Biter Blog, commentary and news on local religion and secular government.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

"Invocation... by Invitation Only" - a talk at the UU Church of Pensacola 11.30.14

<SLIDEs not included here>

SLIDE four directions  (Centering Music)
lyrics, other slides

SLIDE invocation
in·vo·ca·tion, noun: the action of invoking something or someone; the summoning of a deity; or the incantation used for this

SLIDE jesus flag
If you've attended two local board meetings, you've heard an invocation, whether you wanted to or not.  It goes like this:  There's a welcome.  Then they introduce a special guest.   You're asked to stand and he approaches the pulpit.  Eyes are closed and heads are bowed and it starts: "we worship you, heavenly Father" "we ask for your guidance" "we trust that you are in control".

SLIDE one nation under
Beyond that, I've heard the Lord's Prayer (recited by the entire room), the one true savior exalted, prophecy predicted, governments urged to become one with the Christ, and Biblical righteousness summoned.  Almost always "in Jesus' name".  Then the Pledge of Allegiance,  and we are suddenly one nation, under God.

SLIDE coexist fight
What don't you hear are: calls for simple human compassion, or invocations of logic and reasoning.  No one (except me perhaps) brings blessings from female, minority, or non-traditional gods.  And only rarely is there a moment of silence for INDIVIDUAL prayer or reflection.

SLIDE - radical devil
The whole ritual has become a major pet peeve of mine.  And, in the eyes of some, it's turned me into a religious radical AND an agent of Satan.  
Now, I am not against prayer.  I've led many, of the Christian, New Thought, and  Pagan varieties.  In fact, I consider it my job to invoke the divine, the way I know best - through music.

SLIDE  igwt
It's EXCLUSIVE prayer - especially unwelcoming and discriminatory GOVERNMENT-LED prayer that bothers me.   And when only Bible-based believers are invited to speak, something is sketchy.  So I decided to see for myself.
In the Summer of 2012, I asked to deliver my own invocations.  As music director at a Christian church, my offers were quickly accepted by the City and County.  Here's what I said:

SLIDE  (county any 4)
heads bowed...
Mother, father, gods of ALL people,
we come today   in our humble way    to shape a small part of creation
Gathering to a task, in your diverse and glorious presence,
together we invoke your unique blessings,   your light and essence

SLIDE (Allah etc)
May the efforts of this council blend
the justness of Allah    with the wisdom of Odin
May Mithra the everlasting ground them grace, and so mother Gaia
May Yahweh forgive their shortcomings    and Beddru foresee their salvation
MAKE light their mission,   Brahma and Dionysus
and imbue each decision     with the mercy of Isis

SLIDE  (Krishna etc)
Whatever your virtues,   name or form,
may we be worthy    of this wholly equal assemblage
BaHa and Elohim we beseech you     Krishna and Ek Onkar, come
illuminate our civic path    by air, water, earth and sun

SLIDE (Jesus atheist)
As do we praise you too,    Jehovah of Christ,     Huītzilopōchtli, and Ba'al
for the sanguine sacrifice    that frees us all
And for the bounty of reason, science and logic,
we thank the ONE deity   none of us knows,    
that of Humanist, atheist and agnostic

SLIDE (Buddha FSM)
Divine love, lead us,  enlightened by Buddha and Eshu,
empowered by Thetan spirits, that we may govern  
with the wisdom and the good    of ALL gods of all nations
PLEASE impart our humble congregation  
with prudence, prosperity and peace this day
and so we pray,     AMEN
...Oddly, I never got a follow-up invitation.

SLIDE scotuspopes
Almost two years later, at long last, the Supreme Court ruled on the Constitutionality of so called "legislative prayer".  My side lost; however, as Buz will tell you, we won some protections to curb preaching and discrimination.  But, in practice, such prayers ARE still preachy and there IS discrimination.  And locally, it's not getting any better on it's own.  Here's why:

SLIDE privilege
SOMEONE chooses who gets to pray.  At the City, it's an unknown staff person.  At the Escambia County Commission and School Board, the system is different, and built for discrimination.  For both, board members rotate the responsibility of bringing a prayer-giver.  It's the sole discretion of each elected official to choose a believer they approve of.  And there is ZERO oversight.  So.. they almost always choose Christians.  Frequently, the same pray-givers appear over and over... while willing religious minorities (like Buz and I) are turned down.  In short, if you're not Bible-believing, you'll probably get stone-walled.

None of these boards will discuss the issue nor offer a written policy.  We've been trying.  The best I've gotten was one begrudging return appearance from the City and one from the County.  You may have heard about the latter - the same Pagan call to directions I sang today.  Non-believers like Buz can't even get a first invocation.  Besides offering invocations, we've tried meeting with staff and attorneys, contacting representatives, speaking at public forums, and enlisting viral and local press.  Even letters from the FFRF and Americans United are ignored.  I've documented all this on my blog - including video and news links.

SLIDE - churchstate
As of now, not ONE SINGLE local representative will commit to an inclusive prayer policy that removes personal privilege from the equation.  But, when it comes to religious discrimination, the ECSB takes it to a new level - with one member, Jeff Bergosh, leading the pack.
In May, I asked the school board if I could offer an invocation.  Mr Bergosh had the next month, and he called me right back.  You can read about that exchange on my blog.  In short, he asked "Are you Christian?"  I said no.  "What are you" Pagan.  His reply: "oh no, not ever, ever." I wanted to discuss equal access, but he hung up.  Every month since, I've been appealing to the full board, always to no avail.

SLIDE - bergosh satan
If you get bored, check out Bergosh's blog of self-righteous opinions.  In it, he portrays minority prayer-givers as offensive, Satanic nuisances, trying to pull a prank.  He warns of voodoo witch doctors and animal sacrifices.  He denigrates non-Christians.  And he generally makes excuses to exclude minorities, while claiming he does not 'ever, ever' discriminate.

SLIDE got privilege
Sadly, the school board as a whole supports the 'invitation only' undestanding.  That way, they avoid prayers "offensive" to the majority.  To date, NO school board member has accepted a prayer offer from a minority or non-believer.  There's still NO written policy.  And, they've said, they will NOT revamp their process - unless they are sued.  I'm working on that last option.

SLIDE - 4 ECSB shots
For now, I say: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.  I can still take action and so can you.  We can ALL reject official prayers.  When the time comes to stand and pray along, just sit.  Or stand and turn your back.  I prefer to substitute my own invocation.  From the front row, I lay out a prayer rug and chant quietly so I don't have to listen.  I've also rotated and quietly called to the four directions.

SLIDE coexist
The NEXT step is to offer prayers honoring some others' less-welcome faiths - praying during the public forum.  Pastafarian, Scientologist, Astrologist, even Satanist... if one is welcome, all should be.  And yes, I'm taking requests.  It's not the same as an official invocation, but at least minority prayers will get heard.

SLIDE Jefferson
At this point, I'd love to discuss the difference in school prayer and legislative invocations - though our school board makes no distinction.  But I don't have time.  Just know that school systems are guided by much more stringent standards than councils covered the recent Galloway decision.
SLIDE student handbook
Sadly, a lawsuit will be needed to loosen the school board's commitment to Christian dominion at its meetings.  Even sadder, their own rules forbid 'agents of the District from coercing, advocating, encouraging religious activity'.  They even call for a 'moment of silence, not to be conducted as a religious service'.  That sounds quite reasonable and respectful.  Too bad they don't practice what they preach.

SLIDE stay on your side  
Call me a radical, or a devil, if you must.  But I truly believe that our government - and especially our schools - should always be neutral regarding religion - from the lowest to highest levels.  That's the only way to respect ALL religions (or lack thereof) AND to maintain a clear separation of church and state.  A moment of silence does that.

SLIDE dowager
Perhaps the Dowager Countess best summed up my aversion to official public prayer: "My dear" she said "Religion is like a penis.  It's fine to have one and be proud of it, but when you take it out and wave it in my face, that's when we have a problem."

SLIDE santajackfairy
The bottom line is this.  Citizens don't come to a government meeting to pray, nor to be prayed at.  But all of us - from atheists and Pagans, to Christians and Muslims - we all hold the same Constitutional right to exercise our religion, when permitted in the public square.  That's not happening.
If our government wants everyone to feel welcome equally...  maybe it would be better to just start the meeting.
Thank you

SLIDE humanist
while Buz speaks...

SLIDE  scotuspopes
"Everything about the situation infringes the First Amendment... ...with proper invitation"

SLIDE humanist (for the rest of Buz' talk)

v VIDEO: secular invocations

W SLIDE Do Learn (for wrap-up)

SLIDE (offertory song) FSM stained glass
- Lord's Prayer ala Malotte
- please take with grain of salt, and perhaps some Parmesan cheese


<First, I want to share MY belief.  For brevity's sake, I self-identify as an Agnostic Pagan Pantheist.  I'm agnostic because I don't claim certain knowledge any divine presence.  I'm Pagan because that's how Christians describe polytheists reject the big-three religions AND claim a spiritual connection with nature.  And I'm pantheist because I like to think that divinity exists in innumerable forms - as an unnamable, spiritual force permeating all living things, silently and (almost) imperceptively.  Almost.  But that's another discussion. >

What YOU Can Do:
- Offer your own invocation or moment of silence.
- Speak out in emails, letters, monthly public forums.
- Demand a written policy from County and School Board.

Where to Learn More:
David's blog:
- board contact info, news stories, public forum transcripts, correspondence, legal letters, opinion pieces, my beliefs, background infom, meeting and invocation video
Friendly Atheist:
Operation Inclusion:
Freedom From Religion Foundation:

Words for Meditation:
"In Silence" by Amitav Radiance
Absorb the silence around
Know the silence and it messages
Connect with the inner self
At rest is the soul and mind
Moments that reveals the truth
Silence douses the flames of uncertainty
Rendezvous with silence
As silence is there to be deciphered

Kagan in dissent:
Everything about the situation infringes the First Amendment. That the Town Board selects, month after month and year after year, prayergivers who will reliably speak in the voice of Christianity, and so places itself behind a single creed. That in offering those sectarian prayers, the Board’s chosen clergy members repeatedly call on individuals, prior to participating in local governance, to join in a form of worship that may be at odds with their own beliefs. That the clergy thus put some residents to the unenviable choice of either pretending to pray like the majority or declining to join its communal activity, at the very moment of petitioning their elected leaders. That the practice thus divides the citizenry, creating one class that shares the Board’s own evident religious beliefs and another (far smaller) class that does not. And that the practice also alters a dissenting citizen’s relationship with her government, making her religious difference salient when she seeks only to engage her elected representatives.

Closing Words:
W.E. DuBois:
“Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. It is today that our best work can be done, and not some future day or future year. It is today that we fit ourselves for the greater usefulness of tomorrow. Today is the seed time, now are the hours of work, and tomorrow comes the harvest and the playtime.”

VIDEO: November ECSB Public Forum

coming soon

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

ECSB Meeting Comments, TONIGHT!

BELOW are my comments, as I intended to say them before tonight ECSB meeting tonight.  However, it was Mrs Hightower's turn as invocation-chooser and she read a poem, then asked for a Moment of Silence (individual prayer)!  In that spirit, I skipped the minority-requested prayer I had planned.  I'll bring it next time - unless they continue with the community-inclusive and legally-sound MOS, letting everyone pray according to their own conscience.

* Video soon, along with a counter-argument by someone saying this we were founded on 'Christian values' - therefore the board should refuse non-Christians an equal chance to pray in the public forum.  Apparently, he doesn't agree with the establishment clause or the free exercise or free speech clauses.

** Still no written invocation policy, nor response to letters from FFRF and AU.

On this day, when you have sworn to uphold the Constitution, I am TRULY SORRY you won't acknowledge half your constituents.  In terms of religious expression, you DON'T EVER TRY.  Every month, this meeting begins with an official prayer - invoking only ONE god - that of the Bible, and ALWAYS in Jesus' name.  Clearly, other gods and religions just are not welcome.

How is this legal?  We've asked, but you refuse to clarify your invocation policy in ANY way.  We get  it.  You want only your religion spoken here, but you can't put that in writing.  So you've agreed that it's your 'personal choice' as board members.  By doing so, you've 'kept it Christian' for years.  You've denied several minorities who offered to pray - effectively establishing your religion and inhibiting the free expression of others'.  That's wrong and illegal and you should be ashamed.

In Escambia County, only 53 percent of us identify with a Christian congregation.  You want to welcome ALL citizens here.  So why start with a prayer that nearly half of us may not even agree with?  This is NOT your church.  Only one type of prayer can welcome all - an inclusive moment of silence - the very same solution you prescribe for EVERY OTHER Escambia school function.
It is simply not your place to decide which beliefs deserve a government-endorsed pulpit and which do not.  And, until ALL are welcome to pray at the appointed time, I WILL bring minority prayers, if merely at the public forum.  I hope you'll then understand how we minorities feel when regularly asked us to pray against our beliefs.

That said, the following prayer is NOT mine, but delivered by request.  Please accept it with the same grace you ask of others:


<May we never again be subjected to prayers we don't agree with.>
Thank you.

Monday, November 10, 2014

IN Weekly Article - Battle over Public Prayer

Mosty, this article seems accurate.  I wish it had emphasized how Bergosh asked me, on initial contact. "Are you Christian?"  Based on my answer, I was rejected.  That's clearly discrimination.  It also skips over the fact that I cleared my schedule for the November invocation (for Ms Hightower).  Despite that fact, she rescinded here invitation.  Finally, I do not see music is my true religion.  Music is a means to access the divine.  It is not a religion, as such, but a way to get in touch with one's divine inspiration - like prayer, nature, meditation or good works.

The ECSB STILL has not accepted any offers from non-Christians - despite several asking. Bergosh skipped over such offers to ask a (token) Jew in January.  Hooray, diversity!?  Since 'offensive' minority religions don't get equal access, the ECSB can expect a lawsuit.  The ECSB is not a legislative body, per Galloway.  It's prayers fall under school prayer laws and are an illegal establishment of religion - especially since only Biblical religions are welcome.  Like the BOCC, they have no written policy regarding invocations.  They've refused my suggestion that they publish one.

David Suhor and The Latest Battle Over Prayer

By Steven Poulin and Scott Satterwhite
The battle over the separation of church and state is, once again, being waged in a local school district. To quote Yogi Berra, “Déjà vu, all over again.” The new phase began when local jazz musician David Suhor asked to give the opening invocation at a recent Escambia County School Board (ECSB) meeting. The board, specifically board member Jeff Bergosh, refused. Not because Suhor wanted to pray at the ECSB meeting, which often opens with a Christian prayer, but because Suhor is not a Christian.
Though Suhor enjoys living in Pensacola, he often feels “crushed” by the ubiquity of religion throughout the area. But like many non-Christians, Suhor’s come to accept this aspect of Pensacola. Suhor identifies religiously as an agnostic pagan pantheist and made waves recently by insisting Escambia County’s local governing bodies, which often open public meetings with a Christian prayer, respect minority religious views or do away with the opening invocation. His doggedness about religious inclusion mostly results from local officials resistance to do away with the prayers altogether over the standard moment of silence.
Ultimately, Suhor prefers that the county bodies open with moments of silence instead of religious prayer. The Santa Rosa County School Board has been doing as much since 2009 following lawsuits against faculty-led prayer at Pace High School. But Suhor feels that since the Supreme Court’s recent Town of Greece v. Galloway decision (that ruled prayers were acceptable at local government meetings so long as they did not denigrate other religions) government boards that allow prayer at their meetings should allow prayers of all religions. To do otherwise would be religious discrimination and, according to many civil libertarians, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
“Religious freedom is eroded when the government endorses any particular religious viewpoint,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the local chapter of the ACLU, after initially filing its lawsuit against Santa Rosa School District for endorsing religious practices in 2008. The ACLU won its case the following year. Santa Rosa County schools now open with a moment of silence instead of Christian prayer. Not so for ECSB.
Suhor said the ECSB’s actions act to endorse one religion over all others by allowing almost solely Christian-led prayers at the board’s invocations. In one instance in particular, the ECSB allowed Escambia High School coach Willie Spears (who was recently fired for insubordination not related to this issue) to lead the school board in prayer. Spears ended his prayer: “I pray that when people see the ECSD seal, they will think of Jesus the Christ.” For those who do not agree with this view, statements as such set them at odds with their elected representatives.
To some, Suhor’s agnosticism and pagan beliefs are off-putting. According to Suhor, identifying as agnostic “means you don’t claim to know with any certainty that there is any supernatural power.” Pagan is also a complicated term. “Traditionally used by Christians to describe anyone, especially polytheists, who do not accept the traditional Biblical interpretation of God and there being only one god and no others,” Suhor said. “Pantheist believes that the spirit of life, if you want to call it that, or God, exists in all creation among all things.”
Suhor’s religious crusade has noted some victories—most notably when the Escambia County Commission opened with him singing the invocation of “A Call to the Four Directions” by the anarcho-feminist and pagan writer Starhawk. Although Commissioner Wilson Robertson walked out during it, the YouTube video* of the invocation remains popular and has garnered over 75,000 views with nearly unanimous support in the comment section.
Still, according to Suhor, the ECSB is still less than amused and shows little interest in opening their invocations to other religions. He says he called the ECSB back in June to do an invocation and was put in touch with Board member Jeff Bergosh. Suhor says Bergosh asked him if he was Christian. When Suhor said he wasn’t, he was asked “Well, what are you?” When Suhor said he wanted to do a pagan/pantheist invocation, he claims Bergosh told him “Not on my watch.”
According to Suhor, he contacted other Board members who categorically rejected him. Even Board member Patty Hightower, who had accepted his invitation at first, later rescinded it at a ECSB meeting. In protest to his exclusion, Suhor opened a prayer rug before the meeting was called to order and chanted, what Bergosh described as “gibberish,” but what Suhor said was “Hare Krishna.”
While Suhor argues for the separation of religion and government, Bergosh thinks prayer should be accepted in public, including the meetings of elected officials. “I have three kids who all participated in sports, and one of the most heartwarming things I see is when kids huddle up around each other before a game and they pray,” Bergosh said.
According to Bergosh, prayers are necessary at ECSB meetings because school board members often deal with “heavy issues.” These “heavy issues” require prayer over a moment of silence, Bergosh relayed. “We have to acquiesce in this nation so frequently to a vocal minority of people. In this case we should be able to, as individual Board members, invite to prayer who we want, and not [try] to make someone like Suhor happy.”
Both Suhor and Bergosh have been dueling their complaints with each other in their respective blogs.* Bergosh also alleges that Suhor had been invited, but declined at first because of personal scheduling conflicts. Suhor disagrees with Bergosh’s version of the story. Yet Suhor’s main contention is not with Bergosh but with the school board’s system of choosing who gets to do invocations, which rotates among individual board members. This rotating system favors Christian churches with little accommodation of other faiths while putting those of other beliefs to a “religious test” when they request to do the invocation, as happened with Suhor.
To Suhor, this battle over public prayer is ultimately about equality for minority religions. “If you open it up to one religion, you have to open it up to everyone, without discriminations,” Suhor said.
While Pensacola certainly has a reputation as a largely Christian community, the region is more religiously diverse than is often acknowledged.
According to statistics gathered by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)* in 2010, only 53.2 percent of the population identify with a particular Christian congregation. The other half is divided between the other world religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Paganism and many more. The vast majority of Escambia residents in this group, however, do not identify with any religion whatsoever. This study underlines Suhor’s issues with the ECSB.
Suhor said Bergosh “has this idea that the audience is 100 percent Christian.” But Bergosh claims the issue is not about religion, but instead is about Suhor’s desire to “make a splash” in the media. Bergosh said he will even invite some non-Christians to do the invocations by the time of the rotation in January to make this point.
Whether Suhor or another pagan will be called to offer the invocation awaits to be seen. Nonetheless, Suhor wants his critics to see this issue as he does. “I would like people to consider how it feels for someone who is not of the majority religion to try to participate in their local government and feel like they are being prayed at by someone who is endorsing a religion.”
To Suhor, the issue is not about him. He would rather this controversy go away so he could return to practicing what he says is his one true religion—music. “This is not about me at all. I would not put myself out there to get attention in such a negative way, especially as a musician, if I didn’t feel this is a just call and there are legal [issues] going on in all of our boards, but especially the school system.”