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Shawn Vestal: Prayer vote averts unlikely clash of faiths

Wed., June 29, 2011

The Liberty Lake Satanists – which would be a great name for a Hoopfest team or a best-ball foursome – are still waiting for their chance to pray.

Same with the Wiccans and Jains. Not to mention Hindus and Muslims. And all the other scary folks who might hope to share their non-Christian prayers in the land of golf and prosperity. The Liberty Lake City Council there has drawn a line in the sand trap: Only Christian prayers before council meetings.

That’s not the letter of the law, but it is very much the spirit. The letter says only that members of the council and the mayor may give the invocation before the meetings. In practice, this means a Christian prayer – if not an explicitly Mormon one – every single time.

In the recent community debate over whether to open the council prayer to the public, including clergy and Boy Scouts, there was a distressing concern about offending the “Judeo-Christian” majority and about the possibility that members of offensive religions would start setting up rites of human sacrifice in the council chambers.

Councilman Josh Beckett proposed the change, and two fellow council members voted in favor of it at a meeting last Tuesday where things apparently got a little heated. Three voted against it – including Odin Langford, who said the council needed to “grow a pair.”

Mayor Wendy Van Orman broke the tie – crisis averted! – then magisterially declared the issue wouldn’t come up again during her time in office.

On behalf of what I assume to be the imperceptibly tiny Satanic and Wiccan communities of Liberty Lake – not to mention Hindus, Muslims, benighted unbelievers and free Americans – I hope she’s wrong. If there’s anything that people who are scared of someone else’s prayers ought to hear, it’s someone else’s prayers.

Langford said Tuesday that he regretted his choice of words, but felt the proposal was unnecessary and a matter of bowing to political correctness.

“Once you open it up to anybody, where do you stop it? Or do you stop it?” he asked.

Maybe the thing to do is not start it. All in all, I’d rather elected officials didn’t pray at all before conducting the public’s business. A lot of city councils wisely avoid it. But the courts have tended to permit these invocations, with certain limits, and deep down, I’m not all that bothered by them.

Once the defenders of the faith start insisting, though, it gets bothersome.

Here’s one argument, made by a citizen in the Liberty Lake Splash: “I would plainly ask: Do you want to invoke the name of another god, whether it is Satan, a set of Wiccan gods or any other? It would be a tragedy to see our government resort to calling upon Satan or any number of other idols for guidance. Most Jews and Christians would see invoking the name of another god as a great offense, and some may consider it putting their salvation in jeopardy should they have to listen to a prayer of that nature. Why would you want to put your peers in that position?”

It goes without saying that no Satanist is asking to pray at the Liberty Lake council. I bet the city manages to dodge that bullet forever. More likely is that a Hindu or a Muslim or a Native American might offer to pray. One man offered to conduct a Hindu ceremony for the council – an offer that was not taken up.

When only one prayer counts, no prayer should count. Insisting that the majority ought to get its way is ignorant – politically ignorant, in terms of not understanding the notion of protecting individual rights against abuses of the majority, and socially ignorant, in failing to extend common courtesy to those who might feel like outsiders in your monoculture.

Another Splash letter-writer took a different view: “I can assure you we want a council that prays, and we moved here to avoid the idiocy espoused by those that believe we have to take every ludicrous view of everyone and include it. … Perhaps Liberty Lake fares as well as it does because of those prayers.”

Arguments like these are a reminder that the separation of church and state matters. Because the combination of church and state is insidious – pretty soon the public dialogue is partaking seriously of the proposition that the Almighty has rewarded Liberty Lake with Republican values, nice golf courses, a higher-than-average median income and lovely landscaping as a reward for saying the right kind of prayers before the City Council meetings.

Beckett said that by trying to allow more people to pray, he inadvertently found himself on the end of attacks that he was trying to shut down prayer.

“This is not about saying: No prayer,” he said. “It’s about saying if we have a Jewish rabbi who wants to say a prayer, or the Boy Scouts … that the rules would allow that.”

And what of the dire threat of Satanism?

“I would actually be interested if they wanted to come and give an invocation,” he said.

Beckett said he’s not going to let the matter go. Next year, when the council makeup is likely to be different, he says he’s going to give it another go.

I hope he succeeds. Somebody has to stick up for all those Satanists.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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