Ms Benson, et al
Will you please forward this to the board’s attorney? I would appreciate a reply from him acknowledging receipt.
Please feel free to share this with board members as well. They need to know this before proceeding.
Here’s the relevant text:
The Greece ruling was a bad decision, but the Court did make it clear that the First Amendment imposes limits on local governments that open their meetings with ceremonial prayers. Towns cannot discriminate on the basis of religion; town leaders cannot lead others in prayers or integrate worship into the legislative process; and invocations cannot proselytize or denigrate other belief systems.
In addition, I want to correct you what you said about my suing the board. Though I hold that as an option, that is not my intention at this time. I have not retained an attorney for this purpose. The reason I wrote you and spoke before the board (as I will EVERY meeting hereafter until a change is made) is because this does not need to go to court. The law clearly is on my side and against the endorsement and establishment of ANY religion at government functions. It also forbids excluding those non-traditional religions wishing to take part. In addition, Galloway does not protect the ECUA Board or CAC, as they are not, in any way, legislative bodies. In short, the board should remain neutral on religious issues. This can easily be achieved, without need for further conflict, simply by dropping the prayer, by praying privately before the meeting (off-microphone, not urging the audience to take part), or with an inclusive moment of silence which allows everyone to pray (or not) in their own way.
I would further note that the prayer is on the agenda – AFTER the Call to Order – contrary to the suggestion I heard at today’s CAC meeting. That makes it an official government function. Otherwise, I would be free to pray aloud in my own way at the same time.
As ever, I would be happy to meet with you or your attorney to discuss this. My only aim is to assure that local government is as inclusive and welcoming to ALL citizens as possible. Asking for the guidance of – and thereby endorsing – any god acts against inclusion and remains a violation of the 1st Amendment establishment clause.
Wouldn’t it be better to focus on the job at hand, rather than interjecting religion, with divisive and possibly litigious results? I think so.
PS If the board needs further citing of cases which forbid your prayer practice, Americans United can assist you, as can FFRF. I've resisted filing a complaint with either body, as I hope to resolve this by open discussion.
<NO RESPONSE TO BELOW - SEE PUBLIC FORUM VIDEO>
Thank you for responding.
I also do not wish to distract the ECUA board by calling out the legality of your unwritten and exclusive invocation policy. However, since you refuse to allow polytheists or atheists to participate, since the board members themselves offer the same kinds of prayers (endorsing their monotheistic, paternal god), and since you will not observe the Supreme Court precedent, which says that ANYONE, “even an atheist”, may offer such prayers and that you the board must practice non-discrimination, I am compelled to work for inclusion and legal propriety. You might also ask your attorney whether the ECUA is covered by the protections of Galloway, since that decision only effects LEGISLATIVE bodies like the City Council and County Commission.
You said this is a “dialog that is far from the mission of our organization”. I agree. Prayer – which is inherently divisive in these settings - is not part of your mission. So why take a losing stand in an attempt to continue it? We’d all be better served by focusing on the jobs you were elected to do.
I believe a fairer, safer policy would be to offer an inclusive moment of silence, which respects everyone’s right to pray in their own way. The board may still pray privately, as commanded by Jesus in Matthew 6:5-6. It’s simply the Biblical-type prayer displays that offend non-believers, true Christians, and those who don’t come to government meetings for prayer. Better even than a MOS, would be if the board get down to the business they were elected to address – and leave religious issues to individual choice. This is not your church, it’s a government meeting!
On a personal note, I’ve been doing this for a while and I am not concerned about backlash against me. I am more concerned with the rightful separation of church and state, or at least having our elected representative practice nondiscrimination when it endeavors to mix the two. I am also concerned that taxpayer resources could go to defending an illegal and exclusive practice, rather than welcoming all citizens, regardless of religion. If you are concerned about potential abuses, you should create a policy which directs the content of the prayers to be offered when open to the public, as required by law. I would be happy to share such a policy. There is one on my blog.
Barring some change of heart towards inclusion and propriety, I will see you at the next meeting.
PS I will be publishing your emails on my blog: anapplebiter.blogspot.com
I am not the chair of the CAC so I do not determine the protocols of that committee. That committee is chaired by Elvin McCorvey.
I have been traveling as well as being inundated with other responsibilities since your last communication so my response to your email , while contemplated, was not conveyed.
I consider myself an enlightened person, and I am not unsympathetic to your quest. My grandchildren attend the only private school in the community that does not have a religious affiliation. They have friends who are Muslims, Jewish, etc.; they take the practice of different faiths in their stride and treat different beliefs with respect. I have listened to my grand daughter as she questions religious tenets. The questions you raise are worthy of debate in a free society. But as with any challenge of widely accepted practice, I believe the forum is important.
I have no appetite for having the work of our board seized for a dialog that is far from the mission of our organization. I do not believe that our meetings have ever been a venue for proselytizing. In general, as you observed, our board-led prayers are typically low key and non-sectarian. To use our invocations to launch a protest would probably backlash against you and the point you wish to make. It just seems to me that if you want to win a war, you might pick your battleground carefully.
As chair of the ecua board, I am disinclined to change our long-standing tradition and invite persons other than board members to offer invocations. I believe that to do so would be to open the door to potential abuses.
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On Mar 17, 2015, at 5:09 PM, David Suhor wrote:
Ms Benson,Having heard no reply, I plan to bring this issue before the next CAC meeting and regular board meeting. I have read your public forum policy and I will have no problem following its rules.If you have a satisfactory answer, or if you’ll consider a moment of silence, or if you’d like to include minorities in future invocations – with a written policy stating such - I would be happy to hear that solution before bring this topic before the board. If not, I can only assume you prefer your current practice of religious exclusion, endorsement and government-lead Christian-style prayer at public meetings.As ever, I am available by phone, email or for a personal meeting.Best Regards,David Suhor850 512-2220Ms Benson,I appreciate your response. It’s obvious you are familiar with my work.I hope you’ll discuss this with your attorney, if you have not already. Please refer to Galloway v Greece NY, SCOTUS 2014. In that ruling, the Court ruled 5-4 that invocation prayers are allowed at local legislative bodies, BUT only because the council involved has a “policy of nondiscrimination” and because “a minister or layperson of any persuasion could give the invocation.” The ECUA’s invocations are lead by board members themselves, which creates an endorsement of the religion referenced (Judeo-Christian, paternal monotheism). With minority religions excluded by policy, this makes our local polytheists, agnostics and atheists (perhaps 25% of the County population), feel unwelcome. Also, no one comes to a government meeting for prayer! In short, your prayer policy establishes one form religion as acceptable to ECUA and excludes others.I’ve noticed that the ECUA’s invocations are somewhat less sectarian in nature that those of other boards. That’s good! However, to make sure all citizens feel welcome, I am asking that your board stop leading public prayer (including asking the audience to stand) or at least have a welcoming policy, whereby minorities may be included without discrimination. You might note that NO OTHER local board leads invocations themselves. That’s done to avoid the appearance of endorsement. The ECUA seems to perpetuate an implicit endorsement (of Christianity and its cousins). That’s why I got a complaint about your board.I have no wish to pursue this issue legally or publicly, though I reserve that right. However, I’m preparing to sue the ECSB over a similar exclusion of minorities. Likewise, the Escambia BOCC, who discriminate regularly and openly and without a written policy. I have spoken with several attorneys, including the FFRF and Americans United for Separation of Church and State – AND a local attorney ready and willing to pursue this wherever needed. In each case, I’ve tried to work it out with the boards first. That is the point of these emails.I’m simply asking that the ECUA board be more welcoming to all religious points of view in our community. I feel that is best achieved through an inclusive moment of silence or other secular ritual. That would achieve the same purpose you intend (collegiality, focus) , but would allow everyone to pray (or not) according to their beliefs. Moreover, if the board wishes to hold a prayer for their own good (rather than a public display of piety or political patronage), they may do so - in private or outside the official meeting - without becoming entangled in church/state separation issues or 1st Amendment violations.In summation, how would you feel if you came to government meetings and were consistently asked to pray against your conscience? Excluded? Unwelcome? Pressured to participate? That’s how many non-Christians feel at ECUA meetings. For that reason alone, it’s time to change.I would greatly appreciate your response. If needed, I will gladly speak up at the board’s public forum. I will be civil and reasonable, without “verbal attacks”. I hope we can resolve this - for the sake of inclusion and amity – without wider, controversial discussion. Please feel free to contact me if I can help and to share your point of view.Best Regards,David Suhor850 512-2220PS If you need some Christian reasoning to justify this change, I suggest Jesus’ admonition from 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."Mr. Suhor,We do not have written policies regarding verbal communications by the board. I have never known any board member to conduct himself with anything other than proper decorum so I do not believe there has been cause to adopt formal written policies. We do have some broad guidelines governing addressing the board in public forum. These deal primarily with time limits. On rare occasions members of the public have made personal verbal attacks on board members and have been admonished for doing so. Such occurrences are very rare. Since they are board communications, invocations do not fall under the guidelines of public forums.Best regards,Lois Benson
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On Mar 2, 2015, at 1:26 PM, David Suhor wrote:Ms Benson,Thank you for your prompt response.Would you please forward to me any written policy the ECUA maintains regarding the content and delivery of prayers at your meetings?Your assistance would be greatly appreciated.Best Regards,David SuhorMr. Suhor,Invocations at those meetings are offered by members of the CAC which includes board members and our appointees. Many times we grapple with controversial issues during these meetings. I think we all benefit allowing members to lead off the meeting in turn and starting our meeting with what is usually an expression of collegiality. It sets a tone of mutual respect which then permeates the discourse.Best regards,
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On Feb 28, 2015, at 6:44 PM, David Suhor wrote:
Thank you. I understand. I’ll look into that.How about the Citizens Advisory Committee? It seems that some non-board members are allowed to deliver invocations there. May I be included?David SuhorMr. Suhor,Thank you for your interest in the ECUA Board and your inquiry regarding delivering an invocation. Unlike other bodies in the community, our tradition is for the members of the Board to deliver the invocations. It gives our members a chance to pause and reflect on our work as a board. It is a long-standing tradition, one that fosters collegiality, and one that I value very much.Best regards,Lois Benson
From: David Suhor
Sent: Saturday, February 28, 2015 2:00 PM
Subject: ECUA InvocationHon. Ms Benson,As a ciziten of
, I am writing to request the opportunity to deliver the invocation at the next opportunity before the ECUA Board. Escambia CountyPlease feel free to contact me by email or phone to arrange details.Best Regards,David Suhor850 512-2220