By George Gold – The author is president of the Atheists of Butte County.
This Guest Comment was published on 07.31.14 in the Chico News and Review
All across this planet there is sectarian violence. Whether it’s Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Bosnia, Israel or Palestine, people are being killed in the name of religion or religious beliefs.
Here in Chico, the City Council has appeared to seek sectarian balance by inviting a Hindu (Rajan Zed), who lives more than 150 miles away in Reno, Nev., to perform an invocation prior to a council meeting. The 2010 U.S. Census does not register a Hindu population here in Chico, yet a Pew Research Center study in 2012 clearly identifies 20 percent of the U.S. population as living secular lives. For Chico, that’s over 16,000 people!
The U.S. Supreme Court decision of Greece v. Galloway makes it unlikely that prayers before a government meeting will cease any time soon. The ruling specifically includes equal access to the invocation as part of its justification for allowing the prayers to continue. It reads in part, “The town at no point excluded or denied an opportunity to a would-be prayer giver. Its leaders maintained that a minister or layperson of any persuasion, including an atheist, could give the invocation.”
Last year, prior to Greece v. Galloway, the Atheists of Butte County asked the city of Chico to halt all sectarian invocations held before council meetings. In a certified letter to the mayor, the Atheists of Butte County now modifies last year’s campaign and seeks inclusion for that 20 percent of the local population who identify themselves as “nones,” or none of the above, regarding their religion.
American democratic systems have flourished over the past 100 years in a predominately neutral and nonsectarian environment. Societies across the globe are learning that when reason, logic and justice prevail, so too does democracy.
The mayor has yet to respond to our repeated requests to be included in the invocation rotation so we can remind people that what makes our government blossom is our ability to negotiate and discuss practical and societal issues in an open environment free of religious doctrine.
If our local elected officials wish to continue praying before meetings, we expect them to abide by the law as defined by the Supreme Court and provide the Atheists of Butte County an opportunity to deliver a nontheist unifying message that embraces all citizens as equal participants in the process of local government.