Adventures in Prayer Land, Part 1
July 25, 2012
I posted about the event I had just attended to the Freethinkers at Virginia Tech facebook page. I mention that one of the Board members stated “Can I get an ‘amen’ on that?” and my friend Zack responds, “Please tell me that was videotaped. The FFRF could play that tape and close their case.”
And so ended my day’s adventure.
A storm has been brewing in Roanoke, Virginia. The Roanoke Board of Supervisors has been having an illegal sectarian prayer at the beginning of their meetings for possibly more than 40 years (based on the comments of county attorney Paul Mahoney, at least 20. One local resident indicated that the prayer had been there for more than 40 years.) The FFRF (Freedom From Religion Foundation) has sent a letter to the Board indicating that this needs to stop. This situation is very similar to what happened in Giles County. For a general background on what happened prior to today, I still recommend my friend Cory’sexcellent blog post. I would also recommend reading the press release I wrote for Free@VT. You can also read the statement I gave to the Board here and my previous article about this situation (including my interview with county attorney Paul Mahoney) here. And then there’s the letter I wrote to the editors at the Roanoke Times.
This afternoon, at around 2:00, my friend Jake picked me up to drive 55 minutes up to Roanoke. In return, I gave him some bread I had just baked. It was a very nice gesture of him to provide transportation and I’d like to take time here to personally thank him.
I arrived fifteen minutes late, and therefore missed the invocation delivered by Pastor Greg Irby of the Temple Baptist Church. Nonetheless, I was later able to speak with a member of the Secular Humanists of Roanoke (SHOR) who informed me that the prayer was explicitly Christian, mentioning Jesus.
According to both Supreme Court precedent as well as precedent in the fourth district (of which Virginia is a part) this is deemed sectarian prayer and is illegal. Ironically, the only thing illegal about this is its explicitly non-sectarian nature. Legally, they don’t have to stop doing prayer at all; they just have to stop sectarian prayer.
However, the Board isn’t likely to stop sectarian prayer. Board member Butch Church told the Roanoke Times:
I believe if we go to nonsectarian prayer, we’re giving up. It just starts a roller coaster that’s going to gain speed every mile.
The board room has a very official decorum, with a rounded front and wooden finish at which the Board members sit. There’s an expansive area for audience members to fit, the whole room likely fitting a couple hundred people. Unlike the situation in Giles County, the audience members were largely well-dressed. You could easily spot who planned on speaking by noticing who wore suits and who did not.
The room was full with people who were easily in their 50s, 60s, and older. Scattered about was a leisurely salting of younger individuals. Later in the evening, I would spot a girl who looked to be either in high school or college with a prominent bejeweled cross hanging around her neck.
As I first sat down, the meeting had already begun and the local Fire and Rescue Departments were being given awards.
There was a 67 year old gentleman sitting in front of me who wore a bow tie, with his slacks pulled up higher than I would ever feel comfortable with. I would learn later that this individual was Noah Tickle and that he had just visited his dentist. This would, perhaps, explain why he spent a great deal of the afternoon hitting himself in his jaw, which I watched with puzzlement. He looked a great deal like the stereotype of a 1950s public high school teacher. I would later find this individual’s Facebook page, which is full of references to liberty, Ronald Reagan, the local tea party, God, and Dinesh D’Souza. It’s also full of short sentences in all caps, screaming at the reader: “LISTEN”, “TRUTH”, “SHAMEFUL”, “WAKE UP AMERICA”, etc.
To my amusement, Mr. Tickle had watched a video called “Shit Fat Girls Who Think They’re Hot Say”. I know that last bit to be true because it was diligently reported by the Socialcam app to his Facebook page and available publicly for all to see.
The meeting progressed onto a discussion of damages caused by the recent Derecho storm. Apparently, this was the first time in anyone’s memory that local residents had lost water and the efforts of several people to amend that situation were commended. It was also revealed that the building had lost power during the storms—this will be a crucial detail later on.
The meeting moved through several different agenda items. At one point, Mr. Mahoney, the county attorney with whom I had met before, stood and made some comments concerning a proposed noise ordinance waiver.
Mr. Mahoney was wearing a multi-colored leisure suit, with a brightly colored plaid coat, white button down, and bright red tie. His coat featured a number of different garish colors. One might be tempted to call it plaid, if only it didn’t seem to represent every color of the rainbow. Mahoney did not strike me as a religious idealogue, but one may wonder if this was his technicolor dreamcoat. Talking to some members of SHOR later in the evening, we reached the conclusion that Mr. Mahoney likely wore that outfit because he knew that this was going to be a big event. He certainly did not wear anything similar when I had met with him previously.
Mr. Church announced that there will be a public hearing to discuss the “FFRF issue” on August 28th. And the Citizen’s Comments section was then opened.
The Citizen’s Comment section is legally considered an Open Forum. This means that anyone can speak during that time, with no restrictions, other than the three minute time limit imposed for each person.
Before going on to discuss the various people who commented, I want to say something about the various ideological and narrative strands that I noticed from the individuals in assembly. The rhetoric from those who wanted to keep the prayer seemed to be consistently stated along a few different lines:
(1) Taking away prayer results in the collapse (or, at the very least, the destabilisation) of traditional authority. This leads to moral degradation, such as the kind of mass shooting seen recently in Colorado. There seemed to be a widespread conflation between church, authority, and morality.
(2) The complaint comes from Wisconsin and it was implied by members of the Board that the FFRF had fabricated the idea that anyone in Roanoke had complained. The Board should not give in to outsiders, it was argued, because the people of Roanoke know what is best for Roanoke.
(3) That as a people, American citizens are losing their religious liberties as God is pushed continuously out of the public square. I want to note here that the people present were not largely ignorant of the First Amendment, but rather had a differing interpretation of that document from present Supreme Court precedent. In fact, many cited the Free Exercise clause in defence of their position.
This post originally appeared here.
About the Author: Dan Linford
Dan Linford is a master's student in the Philosophy Department at Virginia Tech. He is on the Executive Board of Freethinkers at Virginia Tech. Originally from upstate New York, Dan did his undergraduate studies at the University of Rochester in physics. He performed PhD level work in physics at Virginia Tech before switching to the philosophy department. Dan holds a standing interest in people, cultures, and history, especially intellectual history. He is particularly interested in how religions developed in different cultures and changed over time.