I am a Christian. I’m a Lutheran. You can find me at church just about every Saturday night, Alleluia! in southern Naperville, where I’ve been a member for more than two decades. I also volunteer for my church community. I greet parishioners at the Welcome Center, I serve Communion, I’ve taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. Every Wednesday, I’m in charge of feeding over one hundred middle schoolers and their mentors who are going through Confirmation classes at my church through a program called “Head to Heart.”
Several years ago, I had a major health scare. I literally had hundreds of people praying for me. Parishioners from my church, St. Raphael in Naperville, and Franciscan Sisters throughout the Chicago area prayed for me. And I got well. Through prayer, I returned to full health.
Prayer is powerful, and I believe in the power of prayer.
Yet I am disturbed by the—primarily—Christian prayers said at the beginning of every DuPage County Board meeting. I respect other religions of the world and within our community. I respect those community members who are not religious.
On September 12, 1960, then-presidential candidate John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association, a group of Protestant ministers, on the issue of his religion. Candidate Kennedy said, “Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts—including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state.”
It is in that spirit that during a DuPage County Board meeting on December 11, 2018, I made the request to the DuPage County Board to end the practice of praying prior to DuPage County Board meetings.
I was flooded with mail and email thanking me for my position on this issue. With few exceptions, the vast majority of the communication was extremely positive. The couple of negative comments weren’t focused on the prayer issue itself at all, but rather asked the question if this was really the most important issue in DuPage County? Of course, that answer is no. While it’s not the most important issue in DuPage County, it is a “housekeeping” issue, in that the prayer begins at the start of every board meeting. So talking about the invocation felt right as I started my tenure on the board.
As I’ve said, I’m not against prayer. I’m against using performance prayer to sort of pat ourselves on the back to say, “Look at what fine people we are. We’re praying.” It’s about the appropriate and inappropriate time and place for prayer. After my comments were made, Glen Ellyn resident, Walt Zlotow, wrote a Letter to the Editor in the Daily Herald, which sums up my position very well. He wrote the following.
“The DuPage County Board should no more bring up religion to start its meetings, than a church service should bring up county government business at the beginning of its liturgy. County Board Chairman Dan Cronin, who supports the invocation practice as ‘a wonderful way to start board meetings,’ says, ‘We’ll have to consider changes if a majority of board members support DeSart’s proposal.’ While passage is not likely, based on comments by Cronin and incumbent board members, the newly elected members are signaling early on that it will not be business as usual on the County Board in 2019.”
And that’s another “win” for bringing up the topic—to put the old guard, many of whom have sat on this board for more than 20 years—on notice that those newly elected board members are going to challenge the status quo when wrongs need to be righted, starting from Day One.
In fact, one member of the old guard, Janice Anderson, who lost her seat soundly in the November 2018 election and came in dead last out of the four candidates in her district, was so tortured by my comments asking for the invocation to cease, she started a change.org petition to keep the invocation. Two months later, only 36 people have signed her petition. I’d like to ask those people if they pray before meetings at their place of business. Wouldn’t that seem odd?
What does the Bible itself say about the public practice of prayer?
In Matthew 6:5-8 of the New International Version of the Bible, it states the following.
5 “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. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
In fact, a Christian religious leader in DuPage County reached out to me and said she appreciated that I was mindful that public invocations of faith are in themselves divisive. They have a Christian bent and when other faiths are allowed in, it’s for the sake of novelty and to lend a self congratulatory appearance of “tolerance” to the point (where) religious invocations have no place in governance.
If you are religious and believe in the power of prayer, even you must admit that “performance prayer” is not said for the glory of God, it’s said for the appearance of piety, the appearance of sanctity and the appearance of reverence; and you know what? My God would not approve. Jesus Himself would be flipping tables at the irreverence of this practice.
Another constituent, Jeff, commented that “I completely support your thoughts on the inappropriateness of religious prayers and Invocations being given at the start of the County Board meetings. I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but agree that religion has NO place in government, and I applaud your efforts.”
A Clarendon Hills couple wrote that, “while we are religious and believe religion has a very important place in our personal lives, we strongly believe in the U.S. Constitution’s clear separation of church and state. DuPage County is a diverse county of people of all different faiths and no faith at all. The practice of public prayer at board meetings is not only unnecessary, it can cause perceived disenfranchisement by members of the public who do not happen to share the particular faith being represented.”
In the December 18, 2018 Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn said the following.
“...There’s really only one way for members of the DuPage County Board to send the right message about the importance of keeping church and state separate, and that is to discontinue the practice of allowing faith leaders to offer opening prayers at their meetings.
Three Democrats on that 19-member Board are now arguing for eliminating the usually Christian religious Invocation - a practice that the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly upheld in a 2014 ruling - because it implicitly marginalizes those who don’t share the beliefs expressed, even when they come from other faith traditions.
The 5-4 Supreme Court majority held that such prayers are not coercive and are merely intended to ‘lend gravity to public proceedings and to acknowledge the place religion holds in the lives of many private citizens.’ But the dissenting opinion noted that performative prayers in governmental settings ‘express beliefs that are fundamental to some, foreign to others (and) carry the ever-present potential to both exclude and divide.’ Include or exclude? Unite or divide? The choice should be easy.”
While I maintain that the vast majority of invocations have been Christian, in recent weeks, the board has made an effort to include other religions. At the January 29th DuPage County Board meeting, Rabbi Mendy Goldstein of the Chabad Jewish Center in Naperville gave the invocation, and at the February 12th board meeting, Board Member Sadia Covert, who to my knowledge is not an Imam, read from the Quran and offered a prayer. Hemant Mehta, who founded The Friendly Atheist blog, will give the invocation at our meeting on March 12..
Ending the primarily Christian invocation at DuPage County Board meetings is the right thing to do, on behalf of our Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Atheist, Agnostic, , Pagan, Buddhist, and Baha’i constituents. It is my opinion that we, as an all-inclusive board, do not need an invocation prior to each meeting. The practice itself is divisive when we should strive, as a board and as human beings, to be inclusive of all in our community.
And to those who ask, “Is this the most important issue facing DuPage County?” I would say, “No, of course not.” But instead of wasting 10 or 15 minutes on performance prayer, wouldn’t you rather have your board members roll up their sleeves and dive right into the business to #BuildABetterDuPage?