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

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Comments for Today's ECSB Meeting - 3.17.2015

In addition to the public forum comments below, I'll be praying the Hare Krishna mantra, as I always do.  I'll have some other respectful surprises too.

As we all know, this board holds prayers at it's best-attended monthly meetings only.  We also know you have refused good-faith invocation offers from religions that are incompatible with your own  - essentially discriminating based on religion.  And you won't put your invocation policy in writing - though we've been asking for 8 months now.  What's more, you've even threatened to remove anyone expressing another faith during the prescribed prayer time.

Once again, I'm here to make clear why this is 1) against your own rules, 2) illegal and against Supreme Court precedent, and 3) inherently unwelcoming.  Today, I'll be sharing some quotes to help you understand.

First, from Supreme Court Justice Kagan, recently writing against government-led prayer in Galloway v Greece NY:
"Everything about the situation infringes the First Amendment. That the 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."

Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, actually supported invocations before LEGISLATIVE bodies - though that does not include school boards.  Writing for the majority, he allowed such prayers only because: "a minister or layperson of ANY persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation" AND "So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination..."

This board DOES NOT allow any person to deliver an invocation.  Instead, you encourage discrimination to assure Biblical compatibility - thereby placing your religion before your responsibility to represent all citizens.  And since the first commandment says "Thou shalt have no other gods before me", your religion doesn't allow invocations that don't honor your god.  You won't even allow alternative viewpoints in the public forum - ironically, because you deem such words "irrelevant" to the school system.

And you even break YOUR OWN rules.  Another quote, now from the student handbook:
"No person and no employee or agent of the District shall coerce, advocate, or encourage in any way whatsoever prayer or any other religious activity by students."

Last month, the member from district 2 gave the invocation prayer HIMSELF.  MANY students were present - clearly making his actions a violation of school policy.  For that, he deserves formal condemnation.  Even the City Council and County Commission don't lead prayers themselves.  For a member of this board to actually face the audience and ask them to stand and join in prayer, represents an clear endorsement of one faith.  It's not just illegal, it's wrong to use government functions for such religious purposes.

In February, I offered an alternative invocation in the public forum - not a prayer, but secular words of wisdom from the Satanic Temple.

<I asked that you "stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All"  I asked that you "demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms.">

The reaction was extreme discomfort.  One member even left the room in a huff.
Knowing how that felt, why would you do the same to this audience? Over 20% of Escambia's population identify with no particular faith.  Only about 50% of residents attend church or pray once a week.  Let's face it:  NO ONE comes here to pray.  Yet you continue to push your prayers, making those with different beliefs feel unwelcome and refusing any forum to those who don't share your Biblical viewpoint.  How can you possibly justify that?

At this point, I've tried appealing to your sense of law and rules.  I've urged inclusion but received only token consideration.  I've even helped you experience an invocation YOU are uncomfortable with, so you can empathize better.  None of this has moved you from your selfish sense of Christian privilege.  So, nearly at wit's end, I looked to Jesus.  He answered, speaking about public prayer in Matthew 6:5-6:
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly."

I support this board praying to gather its thoughts.  You can do that before the meeting, as I did today.  It's making it a display - be it to demonstrate your piety, to win votes, or to curry favor with churches - that is so troublesome.   By leading such one type of prayer, you put our schools in great legal peril.  Because you exclude others, discriminate openly, and defy your own rules and the Supreme Court - all without offering ANY written policy as guidance, you violate the civil rights of the citizens you claim to represent.  I continue speaking out so you might change your policy.  But if you don't, this issue WILL land you in court.  And since you each refused non-Christian invocations, you may ALL be personally liable.

What do I want? To paraphrase Penn Jillette: "All I want is for more people to be included in more things. This school board meeting should really belong to everybody. So let's put in as few things as possible that are exclusive and as many things as possible that are inclusive."

Since you can't do that with your chosen prayer-givers, your student handbook offers an appropriate alternative that allows everyone to pray (or not), according to their own conscience:

"The moment of silence is not intended to be, and shall not be conducted as a religious service or exercise, but shall be considered an opportunity for a moment of silent reflection on the anticipated activities of the day"  Wow!  That sounds perfectly fair and equitable.  So, why not lead by example and do as you command everyone in the school district do?  Avoid the trouble and go to a moment of silence.  I pray you will.  

Thank you.

Monday, March 9, 2015

VIDEO: BOCC 3.5.15 My PF Comments - STILL No Written Policy


They cut the time short this month. Here's my FULL comments, as I intended them:

I'm here to talk about government-led public prayer. By a narrow 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled, in May 2014 that bodies like this MAY hold invocations before their meetings. If you wish to continue leading prayer, it's this board's duty to comport with the Galloway decision, which is clear. It provides guidelines for appropriate content. More importantly, Galloway outlines who can give invocations, saying: 
"a minister or layperson of ANY persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation" and adding "So long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination..." 

I'm sorry to say that this board FAILS to guide content or to assure nondiscrimination. Despite Mr Robinson's contention last month that "no one has denied other individuals who have come forward", that is exactly what has happened. Most commissioners smartly don't even answer requests from minority religion... but I have emails from Mr Robertson refusing to consider atheists, agnostics, Humanists or Pagans. In fact, I'd bet Mr Robertson has NEVER asked a non-Christian to speak. Instead, the record shows he repeats his favorite speakers, all while new requests are pending. You all do it. Three particularly privileged pastors, including a County employee, actually provided 1/3 of the prayers over the last 2 years. One even repeated 3 meetings in a row. And yet, you claim to welcome diversity? 

What's more, the County extends prayer well beyond this LEGISLATIVE body, though Galloway does not allow it. People are now reporting to me that lesser boards, including the TPO, Merit Protection Board and Planning Board, all hold Christian prayer - provided by board members themselves. And they have denied requests from non-Christians to participate. Madame County Attorney - WHY on earth are non-elected officials starting government committee meetings with an official prayer? Have they heard of the 1st Amendment? The citizens deserve to know how you justify this or it needs to stop! 

This is not about appeasement or begrudging token inclusion. That time has passed. At this point, the only solution is a clear policy that assures nondiscrimination. I've been asking for this policy for 8 months now. Mr. Robinson promised last month "We have a policy, we'll be happy to put it down in writing". Still, all I've heard was that it has been passed on to the County Attorney... again. 

Madame Attorney, I understand that you cannot commit the current policy to writing. To do so would admit discrimination is happening. So, I offered a fair policy last month - with a random choosing of speakers, clear content guidelines, and no exclusion. This board will not consider it. To do so would welcome all faiths equally and that's almost as bad as an inclusive Moment of Silence allowing everyone pray (or not) as they wish. So you continue, as quietly as possible, to support this special, but illegal Christian privilege. 

Well... this board WILL have a fair policy. It can come voluntarily OR it will, inevitably, be forced on this board by court order. I'm urging this body to take action BEFORE that happens. 

Let's face it, despite the pews, NO ONE comes to this meeting to hear a prayer. They come to participate in the business of government. So why are we still pretending to pray? Besides the political patronage, I believe you want to display your piety to the largest audience possible. Otherwise, you'd hold prayer at less-attended meetings too. By showing that you all pray to the "same Jesus" as Mr Underhill said last meeting, you get votes. 

I have not been able to convince you using, law, reason or empathy. So perhaps you'll consider the words of your savior. In Matthew 6:5-6, Jesus said: 
"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly." 

One final thought - what do I want? Besides a fair, WRITTEN policy free of discrimination and calls for salvation, I think Penn Jillette summed up what I want best: "All I want is for more people to be included in more things. And this courthouse should really belong to everybody. So let's put as few things in that are exclusive and as many things in that are inclusive."

RAW STATISTICS: Escambia County Religions v Invocations

Some local government officials have said their bodies (ECSB, City Council, ECUA, BOCC) choose prayer-givers to reflect the local demographics.  That is clearly not the case, as we are not 95-100% Christian church-goers.

Here are some 2010 statistics:

As you see, just under 1/4 of our citizens don't identify with a recognizable religious affiliation.  So why aren't there 1/4 moments of silence?  Moreover, less than 50% of Escambians attend church regularly. But they get church content at 100% of government meetings.  I cannot accept the excuse that Commissioners (like Mr Robinson) coordinate to make sure they reflect the population.  In fact, I see no coordination AT ALL when board members choose the speakers themselves.  All I see are officials repeating their favorite Christians and excluding and denying non-Christians the chance to take part.  And there is still NO WRITTEN POLICY!

Just this week, according to the 2014 General Social Survey, one in 4 citizens say they pray less than once a week.  That's probably the same "unaffiliated" group that is now the fastest growing among religious demographics.  We are second in % of population only to Christians - and larger than any single denomination.  But we don't get ANY consideration in invocations - certainly not 22%.

I urge our boards to quit lying, saying they reflect the population, consciously or otherwise.  They don't and I have the records to prove it.  Their prayers run 95-100% Christian.  Even the Supreme Court cautioned against trying to do parse the population - calling it an entanglement with religion.  If they do try this tactic, they should at least cite their statistics, put their system in writing to make sure it it followed.

The best solution is to get our government out of the business of leading prayer.  An inclusive moment of silence would achieve that beautifully.  But is anyone brave enough to suggest that, possibly losing their image of church-defenders and the political privilege they gain from inviting churches into the state's business.  From the responses I've gotten, I doubt it.