A small Alaska town has become the latest flashpoint in America’s ongoing debate over the definition of religious freedom, with a city assembly struggling to discern who gets to be included in efforts to expand “religious liberty.”
On Monday, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly of Ketchikan, Alaska, voted to approve an ordinance that allows their meetings to begin with prayers of invocation. The city justified the move by referring to the 2014 U.S. Supreme Court decision Greece v. Galloway, which allowed volunteer chaplains to open legislative sessions with a prayer. They then cited the support of a local clergy group, charging the Ketchikan Ministerial Association with helping supply pastors to pray at meetings.
“The Ketchikan Ministerial Association, a non-denominational group of Ketchikan clergy, is in favor of this ordinance and has offered the support of its members to provide the invocation on a rotating basis,” the ordinance read. “If Ordinance 1740 is approved by the Assembly, the Clerk’s Office could coordinate with the KMA, and local clergy, for a member to provide the invocation at the beginning of each Assembly meeting.”
But while the Ketchikan Ministerial Association is non-denominational, it is an explicitly Christian group, professing “core values” that include a belief in the “Deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, and that He is the only begotten Son of God.” Council member Bill Rotecki drew attention to this fact, and proposed an amendment that would make the ordinance more inclusive to other religions and add atheists to the list of people who could offer invocations.
Fellow council member Glen Thompson took exception to the amendment, however, arguing that only some groups should be allowed to pray before the assembly.
“Atheism means not god, and that completely guts the whole intention of this ordinance and I think it’s inappropriate,” Thompson said, according to KRBD radio. “I don’t have a problem with having an inclusive denominations, be they Hindu, Islam, Bahai faith, Christian, what have you. I will draw the line on Satanists or atheists.”
The ordinance passed with a 4–3 vote, but the amendment failed, with only Rotecki voting in favor. However, after the meeting was reported on by local news and blogs such as The Friendly Atheist, people contacted Thompson to inform him that the law prohibits the exclusion of any group. Thompson responded by completely shifting his position within 24 hours, recanting his remarks and declaring that invocations should be open to all citizens.
“I really do believe that if we move forward with this type of invocation, we have to be inclusive,” he told KRBD radio. “We can’t exclude atheists, we can’t exclude paganists. I don’t anticipate there’s going to be very many of them wanting to come and present a prayer to us, but if we’re going to have this type of a ceremony, it should be inclusive and anyone who wants to sign up should have the right to do so.”
“I’m a Constitutionist, and we have to have access to our government, we have to have inclusion. I’m OK with it,” he said.
The controversy comes as several American cities debate whether to pass ordinances formally allowing for invocations, although some towns now allow atheists to open assemblies — often with the support of local faith leaders. An atheist opened a government meeting in Alabama last month, for example, extolling values such as courage and justice and reciting quotes by Thomas Jefferson that champion virtuous living without specifically mentioning religion.
In addition, Thompson’s specific mention of Satanists is likely an implicit reference to the groundswell of activism perpetuated by Satanists, a group that is regularly testing the limits of religious freedom across the country. In January, the New York-based Satanic Temple protested a six-foot-tall granite memorial to the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol by submitting an application to erect a seven-foot statue of Satan in the same area. In July, the Satanic Temple launched a campaign asking the government to exempt their followers from “informed consent” laws that discourage women from having abortions, citing the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision on Hobby Lobby as protection for their their deeply-held beliefs about “scientifically valid information.” And in September, Satanists demanded equal treatment from a California school that has twice allowed a Christian group to pass out Bibles to students, arguing that they should also be able to distribute Satanist paraphernalia such as The Satanic Children’s BIG BOOK of Activities.