by Randolph T. Holhut
Chief of AR Correspondents
April 21, 2011
HOW TO RE-FRAME THE DEBATE OVER DEFICITS AND SPENDING
BRADENTON, Fla., April 22, 2011 -- The Rev. Joey Mimbs, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Bradenton, had a day off on Good Thursday of Holy Week, the peak days of Christianity's liturgical calendar. He wasn't taking phone calls at his church or at home but enjoying a well-deserved day of rest.
Since today is the holiest day of that calendar, Good Friday, the day that Christians believe Christ died on a cross on a hill called Golgotha outside Jerusalem, he'll be fully occupied with religious pursuits.
Mimbs is unlikely to know until next week, then, that the atheists are pursuing him. Or Manatee County, at any rate.
Mimbs is the chair of the Manatee Ministerial Assn., whose members are the source of his choices to be the priest, rabbi or pastor who offers the invocation, a one-to-two minute prayer at the opening of most official county meetings. It doesn't appear that Muslim imams and Hindu or Buddhist priests are invited, if only because their congregations are below the religious radar here.
Mimb's choices often are Christian pastors who invoke the name of Jesus Christ at the end of their prayers; they did so at last Tuesday's meeting of the Manatee County, Fla., Board of Commissioners, and on Thursday at the Manatee County Port Authority meeting.
Not quite like a thief in the night, the chosen preachers seem to avoid the mention of specific deities for a couple of minutes, until the last few words of their prayers, and then "sneak" them in at the end, saying "in the name of Jesus Christ, amen." Our Lord rarely makes their first paragraph.
As far as Mimbs and the Constitution of the United States are concerned, their First Amendment right of free speech and to practice the religion of their choice is sacrosanct. Invoking Christ's name is their absolute right, if there can be such a thing in this watered-down, diluted, unimpassioned and ever-cautious age. But can they do it at public meetings, even when (gasp!) children are present?
The American Humanist Association, which among other pursuits is a dogged critic of prayer at public meetings, says no. It has a distinctly different viewpoint (and they never get asked to give the invocation).
In a March 30 letter to the board, the association's William J. Burgess said he was writing "to alert you to a serious separation of church and state concern. We have recently been informed that meetings of the Manatee County Board of Commissioners regularly open with prayers."
Had Mr. Burgess been in Manatee County at a county school board meeting until just a few years ago, he would have heard meetings open with the Lord's Prayer. That stopped only after a long and costly battle with a Jewish family. They objected and went to federal courts in 2003, and won a settlement with the school board in 2004.
One issue was that the board only invited Christian pastors to speak; one board member said he would be "uncomfortable" with anyone else. Burgess says he has noted the same practice at the board of county commissioner meetings.
"[Posted] Recordings of the regular board meetings...revealed that each meeting from May 5, 2009, through March 15, 2011, opened with a prayer that was delivered either by Christian clergy or a county commissioner. ...None of the prayers were from religious traditions other than Christianity. ...[In] at least two of these meetings, the public was asked to join in reciting the "Lord's Prayer."
Doing so violated the Establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution (which bars the establishment of a national religion" and Florida's Constitution, Burgess says.
The 2004 settlement agreement enjoined the school board from mentioning Jesus by name, but pastors continued to refer to Him, he said. In fact, one observant writer noted, they mentioned Jesus more often than before. That put the school board at the risk of a contempt of court citation, but didn't end the practice. The settlement did not address meetings of the board of commissioners, of coursel they were not a party.
The Supreme Court has held that no governmental body may seem to endorse or favor either a specific religion or "religious belief over disbelief..." And the Board has not asked an atheist to lead it in prayer, although they would likely be comfortable with a moment of silence. Especially today.
In an interview with The Bradenton Times, County Atty. T.N. Williams, a quiet, thoughtful man, was having none of it. He'd seen the letter from Burgess. Did he think it was wrong to mention Jesus?
"No, of course not," Williams said. "If a Christian wants to pray in the name of Jesus, he can pray in the name of Jesus. If a rabbi doesn't want to mention Jesus Christ, he doesn't have to do that."
As for the admitted preponderance of Christian pastors in the database which invitations are sent to, Williams says, Manatee County is a conservative, Christian community by most definitions. There's hundreds of Christian churches here, and a handful of large Catholic churches. There are also Jewish congregations, although not many.
In a call late Friday morning, Mimbs said he's "asked non-Christians to pray, to no avail." Ministers who accept are "instructed" to "Ask a blessing; you don't need to preach a sermon." He finds ministers for the Board of Commissioners, he said; other agencies find their own.
"We ask people to pray," said Williams. "We don't tell them what to pray. We don't govern the content of their prayer."
Instead, he said, "We have a list of pastors and churches in town that we contact by phone or their attendance at the Manatee Ministerial Assn. They're instructed not to use the prayer to preach or proselytize or denigrate any faith."
They have included a priest and a rabbi, Williams said, but not any other religious traditions, so far as he knows. "You have to look at the community and the pool that's available to pick from," he said.
Marianne Lopata, the agenda coordinator, works in the offices of County Administrator Ed Hunzeker. She doesn't maintain the database of pastors that Mimbs uses to offer the prayer opportunities.
"I just send out the invitations," she said. She sends Mimbs a calendar in January of official meetings where a prayer is welcomed. Lopata furnished The Bradenton Times a template she uses to send out the invitations to the pastors Mimbs has chosen.
"The Chairman [she's a woman, Carol Whitmore, but that's another issue] will call upon you to start the meeting with a brief prayer," the letter says, "followed by the Pledge of Allegiance... ."
There is no suggestion that preaching or proselytization be avoided, but God or Mimbs may advise the pastors on that. There are no priests or rabbis on the current list of 14 slated for meetings this year. At least three of the 14 who were booked for a total of 21 past or future meetings don't appear to have churches; one heads a pregnancy center, one is with the Christian Coalition, and the other is an area director for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Burgess advised that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, in a case involving Cobb County, Ga., "relied on the fact that the 'diverse references in the prayers' - to Allah, Mohammed and the Torah - "made it such that the county did not 'advance any particular faith,'" Burgess said.
Burgess asked the county to end public prayers "so that we may avoid any potential litigation."
Ironically, in a closing footnote to the 6-page letter, Burgess invoked the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount.
In Matthew 6:5-6, he says, Jesus is quoted as saying, "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, which is in secret. Then your father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."
And Florida's Sunshine Law would be silent on that, too.
Joe Shea, Editor-in-Chief of AR, is a churchgoing Catholic. This article first appeared in The Bradenton Times, where he covers county government.