ON THE AVENUES SPECIAL: The proper separation of church and council.


ON THE AVENUES SPECIAL: The proper separation of church and council.  

A weekly web column by Roger A. Baylor.

On Monday evening, city council president Pat McLaughlin meekly permitted 1st district councilman Dan Coffey to hijack the body’s agenda. In itself, this is not unusual, for Coffey has caterwauled in this boringly predictable fashion for as long as your cat has shredded unsuspecting upholstery, and after all, it’s an election year.

(For meeting coverage, see New Albany council: RFRA should go away, by Daniel Suddeath (News and Tribune)

Opponent or none, soon Coffey will be out on the hustings — which is to say, he’ll be schlepping a shitload of tracing paper and No. 2 pencils to Fairview Cemetery for another artful updating of the voter rolls.

Yes, Cappuccino is back. So is the Lord’s Prayer, and as Yogi Berra insists he never said, it’s déjà vu all over again. We have all been here before, and given that some among us seem to have averted our eyes from the chronology displayed on yonder teleprompter (paging meester Blair … meester Scott Blair), let’s revisit what by now should be ancient history.

October 2006: Why one prayer and not another?

December 2008: Council invocation reform? Too good to be true?

Since February in the Year of Our Wizard of Westside 2012, a “moment of reflection” has preceded the rote recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance to begin city council meetings. As instituted by Diane Benedetti during her term as council president, this silent interlude is intended as a compromise, because unlike the Pledge, which is mandated by New Albany’s code of ordinances, there is no statutory basis for a moment of reflection.

However, as the following column from 2012 makes clear, nowhere in the code of ordinances is explicit reference made to the Lord’s Prayer. Rather, an invocation is to “be given by ministers, if present of different faiths.” If it were up to me, Benedetti’s compromise, which allows every person in attendance to freely exercise his or her personal choice of faith, would be written into ordinance, but this isn’t likely to occur.

In fact, Benedetti’s 2012 compromise is more in keeping with the plainly (if inelegant) ecumenical intent of the ordinance than Coffey’s grandstanding proposal to “return” to something that wasn’t ever there.

In the end, it all comes down to the core essence of Dan Coffey’s career, which unsurprisingly is Dan Coffey himself, and as means of illustration, consider that on Monday night, Coffey lashed out at Shirley Baird’s mention of her life experiences with sex-based employment discrimination. He claimed that he’d twice lost jobs to reverse discrimination in the form of affirmative action, abrasively asserting his victimhood as meeting attendees gazed at the ceiling and McLaughlin failed to remember why he’d been issued a gavel.

The most relevant facet of the current invocation compromise was that it was instituted by Benedetti, and was not Coffey’s own idea. If it had been, we would not be having this chat about council invocations. But since we’re already here …

ON THE AVENUES: Separating church and council (February 9, 2012)

There will be a New Albany city council meeting next Thursday (February 16), and when the current council president Diane Benedetti calls the meeting to order, there will be no spoken invocation for the assembled crowd to hear.

Rather, there will be a silent “Moment of Reflection,” one inserted into the agenda by Benedetti in place of the invocation.

I never reckoned her an historic liberator, but presently I’m willing to give credit where it is due, whatever her reasons. I only wish she had Scotch-taped the agenda to the City-County Building’s front door – although upon further reflection, that’s a Protestant thing, isn’t it?

Benedetti’s common-sense reform of the invocation clause has some onlookers clamoring for a return to the immediate past, when the Lord’s Prayer was recited before council meetings. It is not known which temporal council kingpin first came up with this idea, which resulted in the dispiriting spectacle of meeting attendees rising like so many bashful schoolchildren in fear of the pedant, to mumble words many of them had long forgotten.

However, strictly speaking, the Lord’s Prayer was illegal.

The city of New Albany possesses a daily rulebook known not as the Bible, a term already overused elsewhere (i.e., “The Fresh-water Fisherman’s Bible”, but as the Code of Ordinances. It explains the proper procedure for the council’s meetings, including a stipulated “invocation”, which in this sense surely was intended at formulation (in 1957) to be defined as “a form of prayer invoking God’s presence, esp. one said at the beginning of a religious service or public ceremony.”


The following order of business shall be observed by the Common Council at its meetings:

(A) Invocation. To be given by ministers, if present of different faiths.

We might quibble over the wording, as provided by the framers of this passage, but the placement of the comma seems to suggest this reading (paraphrased):

“There will be an invocation at each meeting, and it will be read each time by one of a class of ministers, which we needn’t define because you know one when you hear one, and if ministers of different Christian denominations are present, that’s fine, too, and the task can be spread around, but it is not necessary to spread it so long as one of them does it.”

It is clear to me that the ordinance as written mandates an invocation prior to each council meeting, and I’m also sure that citizen clergyman Steve Burks had resolved that he’d be the one to say it from now until doomsday.

It is equally clear to me that what a previous generation once viewed as fitting and obligatory cannot always be viewed with eternal inflexibly, given a fluid and evolving American society, and a living, breathing legal framework bequeathed to us in order to govern it.

The city council has an invocation rule, and the council president has chosen to ignore it so as to implement what strikes her (and me, and others) as a significant improvement. The Rev. Burks and others of his mindset strongly disagree, and likely will protest at the forthcoming meeting.

The only truly predictable outcome to the situation as currently framed is that the council will be distracted from considerations of reality impacting the lives of far more residents than those interested in theological or philosophical disputes, a situation of misdirection one might imagine running counter to the Rev. Burks’ recent political (as opposed to religious) activism.

I suppose matters of principle are like that, given that I’m just as eager to joust over it as he.

Why should any American, religious observer or non-believer, be compelled to listen to someone else’s idea of prayer, recited aloud, as a prerequisite to begin a meeting being held by a governmental entity?

Whenever I ask this question, someone is sure to answer that really, Roger, it can’t possibly hurt you to sit still for a minute and honor the need of believers to observe their dogmas.

As a non-believer, does it actually “hurt” me to listen to public prayers like these? I suppose not, given that I’m an adult, secure in my worldview, and not susceptible to attempted persuasion that comes off as incomprehensible gibberish, often even less coherent than statements made by council representatives in the meetings to follow – if that’s possible.

But it remains that if one must mandate spoken prayer, there is a noticeable element of coercion at play. At the very least, these prayerful invocations are advertisements for a specific product in a society that functions best as a free market of ideas, not as a closed market for one. What “hurts” me as an autonomous, thoughtful adult is one thing, but how such obligatory public observances affect the cognitive progress of children is something else quite different – and purely intentional.

Of course, from a propaganda perspective, this mood of Christianity’s “inevitability” is the whole point of prayers being said aloud: The listener is meant to feel powerless to behave counter to the mores of the mob, especially when there is an added weight of solemn institutions (executive, legislative, judicial) demanding conformity by osmosis.

Apart from my secular humanist, atheistic, pagan proclivities, it never made sense to me to mandate public displays of personal religious commitment. Doesn’t it demean whatever value there is to the notion of prayer to require it being chanted aloud? How does it count for more that way than if observed silently? Does reverence multiply alongside audible volume?

At last Monday’s council meeting, during non-agenda item public speaking time, a stern and pious Rev. Burks departed from his prepared statement of praise for local miracle worker Vicki Denhart to chastise the council president for her own faith in the concept of moments of reflection, asking for a show of council hands as to how many members agreed with her decision.

Three, maybe four hands (of nine present) were raised, and quickly calculating, the Rev. Burks alchemically converted this bored display of tepid interest to politically quantifiable mathematics: See? The “majority” favors a prayerful invocation, so therefore the “minority” is persecuting the majority.

We may expect his petition campaign and subsequent antics to follow this line of non-reasoning, except when it becomes useful for the sake of argumentation for him to play the role of persecuted Christian minority, at which point his case will be seen spinning on a nickel or dime fully visible in the hand of one of Aquinas’ angels, dancing on the head of a pin, and reminding us that inquisitions always are a thrill.

But the notion of conscience is not an exclusive domain of the believer. If the Rev. Burks wishes to deploy religion as a diversionary tactic at a time when the city’s most pressing issues have nothing to do with an individual’s selected personal Godhead, he will find in me one perfectly willing to represent a different side of the coin.

Shall we start by rewriting the relevant invocation ordinance, thus sparing future generations all this pain?