WATERTOWN — Three cheers are long overdue to several newly elected officials in the town of Manlius for bucking a popular custom.
John Deer, Elaine Denton and Heather Waters — all Democrats — opted not to make use of a Bible while being sworn in Dec. 30 as members of the Town Board. Instead, they took their oath of office with their hands placed upon the town’s book of codes.
Manlius is in Onondaga County. Deer, Denton and Waters joined fellow Democrat Katelyn Kriesel in sweeping all four seats up for election Nov. 5. This result now gives Democrats a 5-1 majority on the Town Board.
“Deer said he decided not to use a Bible because he is an atheist and also because he believes in the separation of church and state,” according to a story published Jan. 6 by the Post-Standard in Syracuse. “Waters also said separation of church and state is what motivated her to use a text other than the Bible. She said she first considered using something written by Matilda Joslyn Gage, because that would mean something to her personally. Gage was a women’s suffragist, abolitionist and author who lived in Fayetteville in the 1800s. Waters said she chose the codes book to be neutral, she said. … Denton said she used the codes book because she took an oath to represent the people, and using the codes book ‘seemed more appropriate for me.’”
This was an excellent display by these three board members of standing up for the constitutional principle of separation of church and state. It’s high time more public officials remind theocrats that the basis of our government is secular self-rule, not religious mandate.
Swearing an oath of office has a long history in our country, and this is unfortunate. I don’t mean to suggest that government authorities cannot express their religious sentiments.
But in carrying out their duties, they are representing constituents who may not share their views. When elected officials combine religion with enforcing governmental power, it’s usually too tempting to favor one religion to the exclusion of all other philosophies.
Many public bodies that open their meetings with prayer frequently select Christian representatives much more often than those from other faith traditions. This falsely confirms for many people that their personal religious beliefs are better than other ideologies because they are promoted by their local governments.
In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on a New York case concerning this issue stemming from the practice of the Greece Town Board. Officials there were sued for opening their meetings with prayer, and Christian ministers received most of the invitations.
The court ruled that opening prayers did not violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution. There are enough loopholes in this provision to legally allow public bodies to begin with prayers, but that doesn’t make it an appropriate exercise.
Allowing public bodies to sanction prayer is more ambiguous than a specific law since no one is compelled to join in or take it seriously. But as it opens the door to complications down the road, legislative prayer is a bad practice that should be avoided.
Elected officials and residents may pray by themselves or in groups prior to municipal meetings to seek divine guidance. And since making the prayer public shouldn’t influence how effective such meetings are, why not keep it to themselves?
Public prayer at government meetings is often not a sincere effort on the part of elected officials to become spiritually enlightened. They can be just as in touch with the divine through private reflection.
The real issue here is that elected officials frequently need to show their constituents how religious they are by conducting public prayers. This turns a spiritual practice into a political one, and earnest people of faith should feel exploited. These politicians are appealing to their religious sentiments to secure votes down the line.
Our Constitution separates church and state for a very good reason. Religious fanaticism becomes tyrannical when it is carried out by government edict.
Thomas More is often praised as a champion of religious freedom. He went to his death refusing to comply with the demands of King Henry VIII. My longtime impression of him as a civil liberties icon, of sorts, was greatly influenced by the 1966 film “A Man for All Seasons,” which I watched as a child in one of my classes in elementary school (this was a Roman Catholic institution, just to clarify).
But More actually represented religious oppression, not religious freedom. He was a “my way or the highway” kind of guy.
While serving as England’s lord chancellor, More oversaw the execution of at least six people because they expressed religious ideas that differed from his own. These dissenters were burned at the stake — an incredibly gruesome manner of death. The movie version of More somehow ignores this act of barbarism.
So it’s a true blessing to see elected officials stand up for their secular principles. The Bible and prayer certainly have their place in our society, just not at a formal public meeting.
Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.