An Update on My Request to Mayor Parris for the Expression of a Moment of Doubt at City Council Meetings

I’m a member of the doubting community, not the faith community, and since my local city council in Lancaster, CA., gives an alternating member of the faith community a turn every two weeks to say a sectarian prayer at the start of each council meeting, I came to a meeting this afternoon, stepped to the microphone after a pastor by the name of Robert Enos gave a very earnest and sectarian prayer to Jesus, and respectfully requested two minutes to speak on behalf of doubt.

What’s fair is fair.

But the mayor, R. Rex Parris, a professing Christian, would have none of it. Instead, he gestured to the officer in attendance to have me removed from the building. He also, as I was being forcefully escorted out, gleefully taunted me a little, expressing amusement that I might suffer in jail for the night and yet have nothing to show for it. In Parris’s view, my act of civil disobedience was futile. It would change nothing.

In fairness, I was speaking out of turn, but I’m not sure under what category of Christian charity the mayor’s dismissive joking at my discomfort falls. Hmm.

And indeed, I very nearly ended up in jail. But I did manage to yell a response to the mayor from the back of the room on my way out. Regarding my request for equal time for the doubting community at city council meetings, I said:

I’ll take your response as a no.

The officer who brought me outside immediately put my hands behind my back, searched my pockets, and threatened to take me to jail. In fact, at first he said I was going to jail, but then he calmed down a little.

All of this was a matter of conscience and intellectual push-back for me. The fundamentalists on the Lancaster city council need to know that there are members of the local doubting community who want equal time after the prayer is offered. Not censorship of the faith community, but equal time. That means no censorship of the doubting community, nor the privileging of faith speech over doubting speech. The official dissing of the doubting community in favor of the faith community in Lancaster needs to end. We are here, we pay taxes, and we shouldn’t be closeted or treated as inferior or part of an out-group when attempting to participate in city council meetings.

And let me emphasize: all this happened because I wanted equal time for a moment of doubt to balance a publicly sanctioned expression of faith; because I wanted an injustice against the freedom of speech and equal treatment under the law to be righted.

But once outside, the officer told me that I couldn’t even return to the meeting, even if I promised perfect civility. And his was the word with the bark on it. He gave me one–and only one–warning. I would go to jail if I tried to reenter the meeting. I was not to come back during the public comments portion either, which means that others could express their disapproval of me without my being present to hear them or respond.

So now I’m basically silenced in my community for the night, in the inferior role of the village doubter. But thank God (if God exists) for blogging! The mayor and the city council can’t privilege expressions of faith over doubt here.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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22 Responses to An Update on My Request to Mayor Parris for the Expression of a Moment of Doubt at City Council Meetings

  1. Longtooth says:

    Santi,

    I congratulate you! Yours was a courageous and much deserved challenge to a hypocritical status quo. T Rex’s response was, I’m sure, no surprise. Paris should be driven from office for treating any concerned citizen in such a manner. More importantly, I would hope there are grounds for a civil suit in this. I hope you will share this evening’s experience at the Lancaster City council with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Americans United For Separation of Church and State, and of course the American Civil Liberties Union. They very well might be interested in doing something about it.

    Longtooth

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I’m definitely thinking about contacting the groups you mention if the council members blow off my completely reasonable request for equal time at council meetings for an equivalent rotating list of speakers from the doubting community.

      If they tell me that members of the doubting community can only express their doubts regarding religion at the end of meetings when most have gone home, that will not do. If the expression of faith goes at the beginning of the meeting, the opportunity to express religious doubt must go at the beginning as well.

      It’s not a zero sum game. Both the doubting community and the faith community can get their two or three minutes per council meeting at either the beginning or end of the meeting (or any designated time in between). But the slots of time must be back to back (three minutes for one, then three minutes for the other). If the subject of religion is to be brought into city council meetings, everyone who wants to have their name on a list for one of the two allotted times per evening should be able to do so, not just designated members of the clergy. A clergyman’s prayers are no more heard than anyone else’s, and a clergyman knows no more about whether God exists or not than a carpenter or a teacher. I want equal microphone access for the doubting community.

      I’m not going to the back of the bus on this one.

      –Santi

      • Longtooth says:

        You probably know this, but if not, a video of the incident is already posted on the City Council Website.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        I didn’t know that. I’ll check it out.

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Longtooth,

        After looking at the video, Parris was more amused than scowling. In the heat of being driven out of the room, I took his comment on my way out to be more cruel than it was. It’s interesting how distorted my perception of his reaction was.

        In retrospect, Parris’s joking on my way out was necessary for the group–it broke what tension may have been present. Parris, as an alpha male, was unfazed, obviously. I still think I’m right on the larger issue of fairness and that I had to make my attempt to speak immediately after the clergyman. And I looked fat from the back. That’s depressing.

        –Santi

  2. Wow, Santi! That is brilliant! I wonder so often what I could say, what I could do, to express how my ideas are different from those of religious people. Where I live, there are more unbelievers than believers, but strangely enough, the expressions of respect always seem to go one way. Asking for some time to doubt could be a very interesting way to deal with that. It often seems to me that nonbelievers are almost shy, as if they’re missing out on something by not having these strong convictions, and I don’t think we do.
    I think you’re very courageous and I hope you’ve inspired many people to think about these issues! Thank you for posting this.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      The reason I went to the meeting yesterday was because, earlier that morning, it occurred to me while lap swimming that the phrase “doubting community” is not only potent rhetorically as a debate framing gesture, but is readily applied to issues of fairness.

      We all know exactly what is implied by the “doubting tradition” and “doubting community”–science, the Enlightenment, Jefferson, Voltaire, the agonies and agnosticism of Lincoln, the nonconformity of Emily Dickinson and Thoreau, Western philosophy, etc. It’s not, in other words, just the bigoted stereotype of the lone, cranky, and eccentric “village atheist.”

      Even the Jesus of the Gospel of Mark, at his crucifixion, crying out, “My God, why have you forsaken me?”, is part of the agonizing doubt tradition.

      The doubting community, in other words, is huge. Lots of people sympathize with doubt over faith, including many who think some sort of a divine mind must exist. Many don’t like the idiocy underlying expressions of religious confidence and recognize themselves and think of themselves as doubters and religiously unaffiliated.

      For a lot of people, professions of faith are more like lottery tickets–something you buy just in case it might actually pay off. But it doesn’t change the secular way that they live all that much. “You can’t win if you don’t play.” A lot of those people are skeptics in key aspects of their lives and identify with skepticism over faith. They sympathize and affiliate emotionally as much with the doubting community as with any faith community.

      And so it occurred to me that the phrase “doubting community” is potent and could be deployed against the fundamentalist dominated city council prayer policy in Lancaster. It’s simply not right for the city council to pretend each time it meets that 21st century Lancaster is this faith-based and “righteous” city set on a hill in which all but a few freaks agree that faith is a greater value than doubt. Lancaster is not John Calvin’s 16th century Geneva.

  3. colinhutton says:

    Congratulations indeed!

  4. Longtooth says:

    Santi,

    T Rex was the fat in the video, not you. The important thing is that the issue has been raised. Government does not have the right to encourage or advance religion over irreligion.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I agree. Civic government should follow the so-called “lemon law” principles on these matters (does what’s going on have a secular purpose, etc.).

      –Santi

  5. Longtooth says:

    Santi,

    I’m with you on the Lemon Law criteria, but unfortunately it’s typically not employed as the legal benchmark where issues of prayer in government meetings are involved. Moreover, there are right leaning Justices on the Supreme Court bench (Scalia for example) who argue that the Lemon law criteria should be thrown out altogether. The Supreme Court legitimized at least non-sectarian prayer in the 1988 Marsh vs. Chambers ruling. The ruling was justified on the grounds that Congress had employed chaplains before and after the Constitution and Bill of rights were ratified. The practice continued in Congress even though James Madison retrospectively concluded that it was unconstitutional. Although technically unconstitutional, prayer as an opening ceremony in legislative sessions is considered a settled concession to “history and tradition” as the matter is often said to be. Nowadays the legal issues turn on the detail of what government meetings the Marsh vs. Chambers ruling applies to and whether the ruling permitted sectarian as well as “non-sectarian” prayer, as in the Lancaster City Council case. Some of the passages in the Marsh vs. Chambers ruling are vague or ambiguous, which both sides of issues have attempted to exploit. Since the Marsh vs. Chambers ruling, the Supreme Court has stayed out of the fray, electing not to take any cases on appeal. Without intervention from the Supreme Court the lower appeals courts have navigated on their own, sometimes deciding one way sometimes the other.

    Although there is currently much afoot in the courts over these issues, the bottom line is that prayer as an invocatory device in high government meetings is for the foreseeable future going to be permissible. For opening invocations, the less well explored and settled issue pertains to equal opportunity, time, and or representation for the irreligious side of things. There’s a movement germinating in the irreligious community of which your actions at Lancaster City Council refreshingly reflected. The movement is using an “if you can’t beat them join them” strategy. An atheist in Santa Monica obtains a permit to present a “doubter” display on city property during the holidays alongside the usual religious displays. Of course, it was not without vigorous protest from the Christian community. The city could not deny the atheist a permit. His citizenship was equally as valid and his money just as green. In the Florida legislature the representatives are required in rotation to lead the opening invocation at each session. A humanist representative steps to the podium to take his turn and declares what he is. Rather than having the legislature bow heads in prayer to some mythological being, he simply requests they look around at one another in respect for their shared humanity and awesome responsibility as lawmakers. Across the nation other incidents aimed at the same general goal (equal opportunity of representation for irreligion) are percolating to the surface. The Freedom from Religion Foundation is probably the most prominent advocate of the aforementioned strategy. Currently I’m not a member of FFRF, but I greatly admire and appreciate their work.

    T Rex is a wily and resourceful adversary supported by the local evangelical community. It’s going to be a struggle to get any modification to City Council policy that treats irreligion favorably. The encouraging thing is that a constitutional issue clearly seems to be involved with restricting leadership of the invocation to religious organizations and their practitioners alone. With all due respect for equality of belief, the irreligious community should be just as well represented in the rotational calendar as the religious community. If all petitions conforming to city council rules (whatever those rules are) should fail, than I think a legal challenge to existing policy could eventually succeed, if only to get the city council to back down from sectarian prayer. Game on? I wish a constitutional lawyer or two could weigh in on this blog and supply some better studied insight.

    -Longtooth

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      On the prayer front, I didn’t know that others had already tried the “if you can’t beat em, join em” strategy (in Florida specifically). I did know about the Santa Monica holiday space-on-the-city-lawn issue and thought, “If space must be shared, time must be shared.”

      If there was an insistence that a prayer had to be said to get on the list, I wonder if a mock prayer to the Flying Spaghetti Monster could be stopped by a city council, or an agnostic prayer to the unknown God of Acts 17.

      Also, it’s a bit like playing chess. I’m sure the mayor and city council have lots of counter moves that I’m not thinking of. For example, if the doubting community got ten people on the prayer list and it was becoming an obvious farce on those nights, a city council member could simply pray after the doubting person did not. A council member has privileges of speech by the very fact of being in charge of the meeting. Nobody’s going to chuck him or her out. Or the council could kill the list and simply take turns among themselves praying. It might prove difficult beyond taking them to court to get a turn immediately after them or before them to express doubt.

      I’m still going to send the council a letter making a formal request for a turn and some sort of remedy for the doubting community’s speech. Will I be ignored? I don’t know. One of the council members is also an adjunct at my college and I’m friendly with him and run into him from time to time. I’m sure he was surprised when I engaged in civil disobedience before him on Tuesday. Anyway, I’ll speak to him and see what he thinks–how open he might be to my concerns. I suspect not at all.

      I could try to have 10 minutes with the mayor, but I assume he won’t meet with me, but maybe I’m prematurely selling him short.

      As for the mayor, you might be surprised to know my opinion of him. I think, on balance, he’s been great for the community (much better than the plausible alternatives). He’s well off and public spirited, so he has time to devote to doing good things for the city (flying to China to drum up business, etc.). He’s been very good on revitalizing downtown and he’s excellent on environmental issues (promoting solar, agreeing that global warming is happening, etc.). I’m sure that, in person, he’s a complicated man who uses religion for votes as opposed to seriously believing the things that his fundamentalist megachurch does.

      He and I obviously don’t agree about the value of religion in politics, but there must be some soft spot in him, as a trained lawyer, for the value of doubt and critical thinking, and maybe he’ll see pragmatic value in bringing the doubting community into the mix of public speech–as a sort of civics lesson in critical thinking and tolerance for speech we might otherwise hate.

      As for your legal summary, it sounds right. I did talk to two lawyers so far. One noted that the Supreme Court has decided to hear a prayer case and so there should be more settled law on the matter soon. Another, from a foundation (one of the ones that you suggested to me), seems prepared to write a letter to the city, which is a polite way of saying that litigation, given limited resources and the fact that a similar case is heading to the Supremes, is not something probably worth doing at this point. You have to pick your battles.

      So until the Supremes rule, I’m assuming the city has opponents to its prayer policy at a serious disadvantage, but I’m still going to make the chess moves and see what develops. As a matter of conscience, it accords with my dignity not to slink away to the back of the bus on this. I’m a citizen, I pay taxes, I want an equal turn for doubt expression.

      –Santi

      • Longtooth says:

        “If there was an insistence that a prayer had to be said to get on the list………”

        That’s just it, is the policy written as specifically mandating a prayer or just an opening invocation? The agenda for the City Council Meetings uses the term invocation. The understanding I have from other similar cases is that these opening rituals are intended to collectively psych everyone up in preparation for dealing with the council business at hand. In such case, the invocation need not involve prayer or reference to any deity to accomplish that end.

        In general response to your post, I agree that it would be difficult to use the opening invocation to express doubts. The invocation is considered “government speak” and thus technically can’t be used to disparage either religion or irreligion. Anyway, that’s how I think the council would defense against encroachment by doubters. Nevertheless, getting representatives from the irreligious community in the rotation would at least occasionally divert things away from prayer and deity veneration. That would be a plus. On the other hand, people can sign up to address the council (for two minutes I believe) and talk about practically anything they want just as long as the dialogue is civilized. That’s not government speak. For awhile I was watching the city council videos regularly and observed people speaking out on all sorts of minority topics. What measures would eventually be taken against doubters acting under council rules, is I believe, yet to be tested. In some degree, both avenues would serve to countermeasure city council religion mongering.

        “Supreme Court has decided to hear a prayer case………”

        Unfortunately, with the social conservatives holding the majority on the current Supreme Court bench, the ruling will most likely favor the Lancaster City Council policy. The kind of measures considered above, may for the time being, be all that the irreligious community has at its disposal.

        Anyway, I’m completely with your doubter initiative. After looking at the video of the invocation given just prior to your protest, my memory took refuge in one of Thomas Jefferson’s famous diatribes.

        “But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State.”

        -Longtooth

      • Longtooth says:

        Well, my memory failed me again. It was the Arizona Legislature where the humanist invocation occurred. Apologies.

        http://www.al.com/opinion/index.ssf/2013/05/public_prayer.html

        -Longtooth

      • Santi Tafarella says:

        Thanks for making the distinction between prayer and invocation. I need to think about that before I proceed. To invoke may entail little more than to cite someone, quote from a book, or point to something as a way of “edifying”–a way of suggesting a direction for going forward with the evening. “As you conduct your business tonight, gentlemen, remember what Linus said to Charlie Brown and Lucy when they were in heated argument with one another: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that you might BOTH be wrong?” That could be a respectful way for members of the doubting community to participate in invitations to city council “invocations”–play the role of a Mark Twain offering a sage comment or a quote that foregrounds doubt, contrarianism, critical thinking, skepticism, humor (as opposed to earnest and unironic sectarian faith expression).

        As public culture evolves away from religion, but still longs for ritual, invocations that take on the above character might become the norm one day.

        –Santi

  6. Longtooth says:

    As before, I look forward to updates about how the situation has evolved for you. The lack of parity between theism and non-theism at Lancaster City Council is of personal concern for me. Your initiative has spurred me to revisit the legal, political, and social terrain surrounding the issue nationwide. I have thus far found that although as yet there are not many instances, humanist invocations have occurred here and their elsewhere on a city government level. I think it would be excellent if you could manage to go one-on-one with Mayor Paris and see what his commitment to inclusiveness really amounts to.

    -Longtooth

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