While I've been on a blog sabbatical, a city government in my area has made the news in a situation involving secularism and church/state separation. Of course, the nearly omniscient Hemant Mehta, The Friendly Atheist, beat me to it while I was
On both my own blog and the comments I leave elsewhere, I tend to focus more on personal thoughts about culture and religion, or larger national and internet news rather than local stuff. Frankly, not much really exciting stuff happens here, and when something does happen, most of the internet knows about it before I do. The only things I get the scoop on are local earthquakes.
I remember hearing last year that Pismo Beach was being sued by the Freedom From Religion Foundation over sectarian Christian invocations at city council meetings, but instead of sitting down and writing an inflammatory essay, I promptly shrugged my shoulders and had a beer. Although the Pismo Beach city limits are all of about a mile from my apartment, I don't live there, I don't go to their city council meetings, I have a busy day most days, and I just couldn't be bothered to give a shit.
But I am glad that someone cared enough to challenge the policy. Let me explain why.
I understand that city councils are not exactly the height of power and authority, and that residents and council members have every right to expect that local culture will be respected by those in elected positions. And they are right...a large degree of local self-determination is a fundamental feature of American governance, not some crazy right-wing fantasy. This idea of having a large local element of control goes back to the founding of the country. The allowance for self-determination we see on the local stage is mirrored by the relationship between the federal government and the states. Even from the start, America was culturally, religiously, and politically diverse to the point that trusting one national bureaucracy to rule over everything would have been a recipe for constant conflict and disaster, ending only in final tyranny, permanent governmental immobility, or the constant specter of destructive revolution.
In order for this arrangement to work to the good of all, the power of government, even local government, must also be restrained and kept neutral, sometimes in ways that bother some people who would prefer it if their own beliefs had to be respected and shared by everyone else. While government must respect and allow local culture, it cannot itself promote it without risking public strife and oppression. It's popular these days in some more liberal circles to view the founders of the government through a fog of time and judge them by our modern standards, and even recklessly condemn their ideas by association with other standards of the time . They are often depicted as the worst of bigots- white, male, rich, slave-owning hypocrites who only wanted to empower themselves. But such modern smugness falls short of the full picture. Despite their failings and the limits of their times, they also decided to enforce one of the most effective principles for combating bigotry and preventing tyranny. They ensured at least the possibility of true freedom for all by separating government from religion. This was almost unheard of at the time, a truly new and visionary concept, and was, in the deepest sense, a revolutionary act. And sadly, despite how far we have come as a civilization in embracing tolerance for others and personal freedom for all, fighting to keep the religious belief of the majority (or just the most vocal control freaks) from establishing itself in a place of power or privilege is still a revolutionary act.
All too often, many Christians seem to think that as long as the majority of people in a given area are Christians, then the will of the majority is sacrosanct, and "anything goes". They seem to think that their right to be respected and have their beliefs and culture respected by the government extends to the point that the government should be free to support, encourage, or even institutionalize the favored religion. Sometimes out of ignorance and an honest wish for peace and solidarity, sometimes out of the most greedy lust for control and power, there are always those who think that everyone should be expected to respect, show deference to, and even be effectively forced to participate in their favorite beliefs and rituals.
As I said before, I realize that a city council meeting is not exactly the pinnacle of power, and that having to sit through a short ritual is not the worst form of coercion or abuse of privilege. But the principle is the point, not the amount of inconvenience. Even a simple matter of having to sit through a prayer before being allowed access to local government sends a message that the government is favoring one religion over others, or at the very least, promoting religion in general, even if the prayers are non-denominational. It sends a message that the local government, which is supposed to treat all citizens equally, is instead interested in elevating some above others. In the worst cases, in places where a latent bigotry might still exist, it sends the message that instead of government "of the people, by the people, for the people", we have government "of the Christians, by the Christians, for the Christians". Even if only in a minor sense, we become involved in the same petty bigotries and public displays of favor that have caused so many problems in a long and bloody history, and that the founders of the country sought to end for the the common good and our mutual freedom.
So thank you, FFRF, plaintiff Sari Dworkin, and Atheists United SLO for pushing the issue, even though it may seem like nitpicking or culture warring to some. And thank you to the Pismo Beach city council for (eventually) doing the right thing, the constitutional thing, and ending both the invocations and the position of Official City Chaplain. Your citizens are perfectly capable of practicing their religions, or not practicing any at all, without your help and guidance on the matter. If the city council or Christian citizens doubt that we are capable of common decency and good governance without their Deity's blessing, well, they'll just have to trust us on this one, or use their perfectly good freedom to pray as individuals.