On Tuesday, the Berea city council will be voting to adopt a municipal order to include invocations and the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance at city council meetings. The order will appoint a specific pastor from one of Berea’s largest Baptist churches as the formal council chaplain to lead the invocations.
This is the point where you’d probably expect me to begin outlining a legal argument for the separation of church and state, lay out the merits of using taxpayer dollars for a chaplain position from only one denomination, and cite case law from other municipalities that have passed/not passed such orders. Plenty of Berea residents are already taking to social media and making plans to attend Tuesday’s council meeting to do precisely this, so I won’t waste anyone’s time with arguments that have been made over and over again, from both sides of the aisle.
Instead, I want to pose a simple question. What good comes from opening a government business meeting with an invocation or the Pledge of Allegiance for that matter? What exactly does a prescribed, forced solemnization recognizing a higher power and our country accomplish right before we talk about road construction and recycling? I’m not trying to be facetious here. I have an earnest desire to understand the intent behind this push. Maybe it has to do with an effort to set a communal, reflective, collaborative tone before discussing more potentially divisive or controversial topics? Maybe the goal is to remind us to go into this meeting with respect for one another, so that we can work together for the common good? If so, that’s something I can certainly stand behind. But wouldn’t a simple, voluntary, inclusive, free-of-tax-payer-dollars, moment of silence do just that?
I know one thing for sure — if a government that is supposed to represent us all forces an entire room of people from diverse faith backgrounds to silently participate in prayer from one particular religion, this does nothing to foster that communal, reflective, collaborative tone that I believe is, or at least should be, the intended outcome here. In fact it does just the opposite. It isolates, divides, polarizes, and makes some feel left out and others feel less valued. Our leaders would be passing up a powerful opportunity to set a different kind of tone — one that reminds us that at the end of the day we are neighbors and shared community members who want what’s best for our town regardless of our faith backgrounds. It would serve us all well if we made an effort to help remind one another of this, especially in a town of just 15,000 where our kids (presumably from all or no faith backgrounds) are in the same classes, and are growing up next to each other every day.
I believe that whatever name we end our prayers with, or if we don’t subscribe to prayer at all, most of us want our town to flourish with opportunities for everyone. We want our kids to be safe and we want affordable housing, healthcare, and food security. If we want the same things, why start out the one meeting that is the tool to help us chart the future course for our town by declaring that there’s not enough room for all of our differences? This Tuesday, many of us are counting on the Berea City Council and Mayor to put their personal beliefs aside and act in the manner that they committed to when they took office – to do what’s best for our town, to bring people together, and to represent all of us, not just the few who have the time and platform to make the most noise.
Mae Suramek is a recovering non-profit professional turned social entrepreneur, and founder of Noodle Nirvana, a socially conscious noodle shop with a side of world peace, located in Berea, Kentucky.