Attorneys with a Christian legal firm have urged mayors in South Carolina and Florida not to give in to the demands of atheists by removing Christian invocations from their council meetings.
"[W]e write to assure you that the Constitution clearly still protects the cherished practice of opening invocations," Brett Harvey, senior legal counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, wrote in a letter to Mayor Gow Fields of Lakeland, Fla.
Letters were also sent to government officials in Aiken and Woodruff, S.C., and Spartanburg County within the past week.
The attorneys contend that the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Atheists of Florida were wrong when they claimed invocations are unconstitutional.
"America’s founders opened public meetings with prayer, and public officials today should be able to do the same," Harvey argued. "The First Amendment protects public officials who choose to invoke divine guidance and blessings upon their work. Those who oppose this are essentially arguing that the Founders were violating the Constitution as they were writing it."
Earlier this month, FFRF warned three South Carolina public boards to stop opening council meetings with prayers, which have often invoked the name of Jesus.
"First and foremost, government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive," the humanist group stated. "Calling upon City Council members and citizens to rise and pray is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government.
"The city ought not to lend its power and prestige to religion, amounting to a governmental endorsement that excludes the 15 percent of your population that is nonreligious."
FFRF took issue with the continual references to Christ in the prayers, calling it a violation of the Establishment Clause.
"The prayers currently given during City Council meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the City Council is endorsing not only religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths," the group contended.
ADF attorneys, however, said sectarian references in public invocations are constitutionally permissible.
"[T]he rule of thumb is that the government cannot compel someone to pray in accordance with one preferred religious viewpoint. For this reason, a policy which mandates only 'nonsectarian' prayer would itself likely be unconstitutional," they assured as they cited legal precedent. "Instead, public bodies are much safer when they provide an open forum for individuals to offer prayer according to the dictates of their own consciences."
Harvey explained simply, "Feeling offended does not mean the Constitution has been violated."
He pointed out that humanist and secularist groups are threatening hometown governments through "fear, intimidation and disinformation" because they're considered easy prey.
"Public officials throughout our country need to be encouraged and reminded that they can and should resist the increasingly strident demands of radical secularist groups."
Atheists of Florida has also challenged its local government officials over invocations at commission meetings but went further to file a lawsuit against the City of Lakeland. The atheist group demanded that the officials replace the practice with an observed moment of seated silence.