Note: This story was last updated at 3:34 p.m.
A member of Rationalists of East Tennessee told the Oak Ridge City Council that no gods should be invoked at the openings of their meetings, and the Council should recognize that secular authority in government is not only sufficient but preferable.
“In honor of separation of church and state, no deities need to nor should be invoked at the openings of your meetings,” said Aleta Ledendecker, secretary of Rationalists of East Tennessee. “Doing so gives the appearance if not actual governmental preference to one group of citizens over others.”
It was an unusual invocation. They are generally led by local pastors, ministers, or reverends of various faiths. The secular Monday night invocation by Ledendecker has apparently caused some backlash.
“The City Council is a civic body, not a religious one, so should recognize that secular authority in government is not only sufficient but preferable,” Ledendecker said.
In a twist on the usual invocation, Ledendecker asked audience members, some of whom objected to at least part of her message, to not bow their heads.
“Let us not bow our heads, but hold them high with eyes open so that we may keep them focused on the issues facing Oak Ridge,” Ledendecker said.
She said Oak Ridge is a very diverse community with many different views and opinions, and the city has a responsibility to all residents, showing favoritism toward none. There is also a growing diversity of religions, including those with no affiliation, Ledendecker said.
“This community is made stronger by the diversity within,” she said. “Over 200 years ago, our Constitution established a principle of inclusion as a shining example to the rest of the world, which has contributed to the astonishing success of our nation. When we forgot or ignore it, we turn our backs on the wisdom of the founding fathers and tarnish their legacy, weakening our society in the process.”
Oak Ridge City Council member Trina Baughn said she notified the city manager and the mayor before the meeting that she would be stepping out of the room during the invocation.
“This was not an act of protest, but simply a choice to not participate in something that I believed might assail my beliefs,” Baughn said. “While I may not support the content of the participant’s statements (I’ve yet to hear them), I do support their right to participate in the process just as much as any other religious representative.”
Council did not discuss the invocation afterward. The speakers at the invocation are scheduled through the Oak Ridge City Clerk’s Office well in advance of the meetings.
Ledendecker’s requests, made in a public setting and during an invocation, are certainly rare, if not unprecedented. Council members gave no indication of whether they would honor her requests.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld decidedly Christian prayers at the start of local council meetings, declaring them in line with long national traditions though the country has grown more religiously diverse, according to The Associated Press. The content of the prayers is not significant as long as they do not denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts, the court said in a 5-4 decision backed by its conservative majority in June 2014. (See also this Washington Post story.)
On Monday, Oak Ridge Mayor Warren Gooch cut off Ledendecker’s invocation after more than two minutes in order to begin the Pledge of Allegiance, and Baughn re-entered the room. The mayor said he doesn’t know who will give the invocation until the agenda is released, and he was cordial, courteous, and respectful to Ledendecker.
When the scheduled invocation speaker is unable to attend, he gives the invocation, Gooch said.
See the video of the City Council meeting here.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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