Less than a month after the Supreme Court ruled that opening a town council meeting with prayer is constitutional, the Huntsville City Council already finds itself in hot water over a Wiccan being un-invited to open a meeting based on community concerns about his religious affiliation.
Blake Kirk, a Huntsville Wiccan, had previously given an invocation for the February 2014 city council meeting. On the agenda for that meeting he was described as a “leader in earth-based spiritual communities.” This time, Mr. Kirk’s name was on the agenda with the title “Priest of the Oak, Ash and Thorn tradition of Wicca.”When the agenda was made public on June 25, the day before the meeting, an unknown number of community members called their council representatives to complain. In response, Mr. Kirk received a call that he was no longer welcome to offer the invocation for the June 26 meeting.
Huntsville City Attorney Peter Joffrion explained the purpose of this action. When it became evident that there was significant community reaction to the appearance of Mr. Kirk as a Wiccan, he assessed the potential for the invocation moment of the council meeting to bring undue focus on itself and take the remainder of the meeting off course. Joffrion reasoned that the community apparently needed more education in order to comfortably accept that Wiccans have freedom of religion and could lead a public prayer, after which they could “introduce him more gently at another time.”
Since 2012, Huntsville has been on the radar of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, over its almost completely Christian invocations. In an effort to become more ecumenical and preserve their constitutional right to pray, the council president at that time, Mark Russell, invited Rev. Frank Broyles of the First Presbyterian Church to put together a more balanced interfaith roster of religious leaders who would rotate responsibility for city council invocations. While the balance of represented religions offering invocations still skews strongly toward Christian, this reflects the 75% Christian demographic represented in the Huntsville council.
NOT THE FIRST TIME
Cynthia Simpson is familiar with this type of double-standard situation. In 2002 the Supreme Court ruled in Simpson v Chesterfield that prayer in council meetings was constitutional in the town of Chesterfield, VA, but the town was within its constitutional rights to exclude this Wiccan priestess from offering her prayers as an invocation. Based on new precedent set by the recent Greece v Town of Galloway ruling, Simpson may be able to have her case revisited.
In its attempt to stay within the bounds of the Constitution, the recent Supreme Court ruling made no statement about the type of prayers being offered, nor about the faith of the one offering the invocation. This general application of freedom of religion is what has inspired Ms. Simpson and her attorney to set out again to establish her right to opening a city council with her prayer. The request to re-word legislation at the local level to be consistent with the Greece v Galloway decision, is making its way through Virginia courts now.
WHERE WILL THIS LEAD?
This is exactly where freedom of religion leads when it mingles with public venues. Christians may pray in council meetings, but so can Wiccans. If a Christian high school valedictorian should be permitted to speak evangelistically of her faith in front of her public school graduating class, then so could a Muslim. Rev. Broyles of Huntsville understands the value of promoting this kind of diverse expression of religion, saying, “Diverse voices in prayer can contribute to the narrowing of the great divide fed by the bitterness and polarizing extremes growing in public life today.”
The freedom to follow the religion of our choosing is a closely held American right, but whenever we desire to extend the exercise of one faith into a public venue, it has to be done in a way that allows someone from a completely different faith to do the same.