Statesboro resident Don Armel asked City Council this week to abandon its practice of having a council member, the mayor or another person they choose pray to open council meetings.
Armel linked his request to the city’s recent resolution declaring Statesboro a “Safe and Inclusive Welcoming City for All People.” Speaking for two minutes as the only person on the agenda for the public comments segment at the end of Tuesday morning’s meeting, Armel cited Resolution 2017-14 by number.
“May I suggest that if you’re serious about the resolution, that you can start right here with your own actions,” Armel said. “Is the invocation at the beginning of city councils inclusive of all your constituents? If yes, then you don’t know your constituents. If no, why continue?”
So far, the mayor and council don’t plan to change their practice, Mayor Jan Moore indicated in an emailed response to that question Thursday.
“There are no formal plans (to discuss the prayer issue),” she said. “Council has the opportunity to bring it up for discussion under ‘Other Business from Council’ on the agenda each meeting. Or they could request that it be put on the agenda. To my knowledge, no one has asked to have it placed on the agenda.”
Armel, a retired Georgia Southern University graphic communications professor with a Ph.D., did not identify himself as a member of any group when he spoke. He is active with the Statesboro Atheist and Secular Humanists, but did not mention this affiliation in his council remarks.
“As it is, the invoking of the name Jesus Christ is exclusionary in the community,” Armel said to the council. “Christianity is a dominant religion but it is not the only one. In an effort to be inclusive, which other religion would you like to have give an invocation at one of your next meetings? Islamic? Hindu? Satanic? Buddhism? Wiccan? Mormon? Or maybe an inspirational message from an atheist?”
The council had unanimously approved Resolution 2017-14 on March 21. It asserts that inclusion is “a fundamental aspect of our community” and that cities and towns are “the best place to make inclusiveness an everyday priority.” Armel cited several phrases from the resolution in his remarks Tuesday.
“Referring to the resolution, is being inclusive important and fundamental – but not here?” he asked in the council chambers. “Is it an everyday priority – but not here? Are you leading the way in making it a priority – but not here? Should citizens expect equal opportunity and treatment – but not here?”
“I suggest that in the spirit of the resolution and inclusiveness that the invocation be removed from the City Council meetings and agenda items. Thank you. Any questions?” Armel concluded.
Mayor Moore and Councilman Sam Lee Jones each said, “Thank you.” But there was no further response from the council. Moore then adjourned the meeting.
At the start of each regular council meeting, the mayor asks a council member to lead the invocation and the Pledge of Allegiance. This is rotated among the members in order of their district numbers, with a turn also going to the mayor. The selected members usually say the prayer themselves, but have sometimes called on someone in the audience, such as a minister, to pray.
Tuesday, Moore asked Jones to lead the invocation and pledge.
“Heavenly Father, creator of the universe, I want to thank you…,” Jones began, followed by other wording adapted from the Lord’s Prayer.
“Grant us wisdom, courage and knowledge to make the right decisions,” the councilman prayed, before closing in the name of “the Father, the Son and his Holy Spirit,” and adding, “Together, all his children said, ‘Amen.’”
In a phone interview Thursday, Armel said he had been speaking for himself and not for any group, but that he and others would prefer that the mayor and council not have an invocation.
“If they truly feel like they need to have the opportunity to pray, it seems like there’s plenty of time before any City Council meeting that they can do that on a personal level, but given that our government is supposed to be a secular government, they should be getting on with the work of the city and not spending time on these activities,” he said.
Supreme Court ruling
If the council continues holding invocations, local citizens need to look to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway for what is required, Armel said. In May 2014, the justices ruled 5-4 that the town in New York did not violate the First Amendment prohibition on government-established religion by opening its board meetings with prayers.
But Armel said the ruling also placed some expectations on how this is done.
“I’m right now trying to figure out exactly how that works,” he said. “It seems like they need to have some mechanism to allow people to request the opportunity to come in and give an invocation.”
In other words, the city would need to “reach out and include more voices,” Armel said.
But he said he has no plans for further action right now.
“I respect Dr. Armel’s opinion and his right to express it,” Moore said on the phone Thursday.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.