Tulsa City Council Allows Atheist Opening Remarks

TULSA, Okla. (AP) — When an atheist group delivers the opening remarks before Thursday’s Tulsa City Council meeting, it will mark an uneasy truce to a years-long fight over separation of religion and government in this Bible Belt city.

The Humanist Association of Tulsa, Oklahoma‘s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other groups have petitioned the council for years with little success to prevent prayers before meetings. Prayers were briefly halted around 2007, but a council vote in 2008 reinstated the practice.

To keep the pre-meeting invocations intact since then, the council has permitted people of various faiths to deliver the opening prayer, or invocation, including Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists and a Wiccan. Thursday’s invocation by the Humanist Association will mark the first from an atheist group under an agreement that came after years of protest.

Council Chairman G.T. Bynum said Wednesday that he has no quarrel with the invocation because the humanist group has a constitutional right to be there.

"No one is going to change my religious views based on an invocation they deliver before a city council meeting," said Bynum, who is Catholic. "Tulsa is a very religious community, and that’s one of its strongest attributes, but we’re also a diverse community. We’re not a caricature."

The atheists’ invocation, which is being called a "half-victory" by some members of the humanist group, will ask attendees to respect "the inherent dignity and worth of each person," according to a copy of the prepared remarks released Wednesday. Instead of being asked to bow their heads and close their eyes, meeting attendees will be told "in deference, we should open our eyes widely to face the reality that confronts us, without losing sight of our ideals of what we could achieve."

"We’d prefer if there was no religion arbitrarily injected in the beginning of the meetings, but if we can’t do away with this procedure, at least we’ll get our point of view across," said Randy Bradley, a member of the city’s humanist association. "It’s halfway there. We’re letting everyone know we do protest this situation."

The invocation was hailed Wednesday by the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit based in Madison, Wis., devoted to keeping church and state separate. Last year, the group launched an "Out of the Closet" campaign in several areas considered within the Bible Belt, including Tulsa, that featured billboards with testimonials from local atheists and agnostics.

"There is a vibrant secular community in Tulsa. And when there is government prayer, they are excluded — they are turned into outsiders," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of Freedom From Religion Foundation, which claims more than 19,000 members nationally and about 150 in Oklahoma.

She said she hopes Thursday’s invocation "will spur serious debate and rethinking of the blind tradition that’s been going on that everybody in Tulsa believes the same."

Tulsa minister Walker Moore said he’d pray for — rather than protest— the humanist group.

"I don’t have to worry about my position or waving a cross every time somebody does something different than what I believe," he said Wednesday.