This week in godlessness brings us to Rowlett, where Mayor Todd Gottel is feeling pretty good. He'll be running unopposed soon for his second term as mayor and third term on the City Council. The rest of the time, he owns a "sales and marketing" company, per the city of Rowlett's website, is a precinct chair for the Dallas County Republican Party, and runs the sound boards over at First Baptist Church of Rowlett, from whence he posts frequent Facebook updates. And he's not about to let a bunch of atheist malcontents take that away from him.
"Interesting visitors at the Rowlett Council Meeting tonight," Gottel wrote on Facebook on March 5. "The Metroplex Athiests [sic] came to protest our Council Invocations before our City Council meetings begin. Please pray for them that they may be open to God's love and His word."
The Metroplex Atheists contend that Gottel seems to have missed the point of their visit.
The Rowlett City Council (like the Dallas City Council) chooses to begin each of its meetings with an invocation -- a prayer, and one that's directed in Jesus' specific direction, rather than some general, fuzzy Supreme Being. The prayer itself isn't illegal: the Supreme Court ruled back in 1983, in Marsh v. Chambers that legislative prayer could be constitutional and not a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, provided " there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other faith or belief."
But Randy Word, president of the Metroplex Atheists, writes in an email that the Rowlett pregame prayers, because of their homogeneously Christian nature, are "exclusionary, divisive, discriminatory and just plain unfair."
"It is not just the mayor," he writes. "It is the entire City Council."
Word says atheist groups have been trying to get the Rowlett City Council to change its prayer policy since 2010. Back then, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a national church-state separation advocacy group, sent a letter about the prayers to the city on behalf of an anonymous resident.
Rowlett never responded, Word says, nor have they ever replied to subsequent letters and emails from both the FFRF or the Metroplex Atheists. "But they did put a written invocation policy in place. The policy states that the invocation will not be on the council agenda -- but it is. The policy states that they will offer the invocation before the meeting starts -- but they do it at the start. They don't appear to be adhering to their own policy."
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In an interview with NBC-DFW, Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Michael Gallops insisted that the modified policy makes it clear that any religious group is welcome to pray before the council meetings. However, he added, "The established bodies of religion in Rowlett are Christians. There's a Catholic church here, there are multiple denominations of churches but there aren't any from other religions."
Word says that several members of the Metroplex Atheists spoke during the public comment period of the last council meeting, on behalf of unhappy Rowlett residents who don't necessarily want to go public with their nonbelief. "Our opinions and concerns fell on deaf ears as we expected," he says. "The council thinks they are acting in accordance with the Constitution, but we obviously don't agree."
Word says the Metroplex Atheists will continue challenging the invocation policy in Rowlett. They still have moral support from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which writes in a section on legislative prayer on its website that it's "inappropriate and coercive for public officials -- many of whom have tax-paid positions and all of whom take an oath to uphold secular constitutions -- to schedule prayer at government functions, or open government meetings with prayer and religious ritual."
For his part, as Mayor Gottel declaimed on Facebook, he doesn't see any issue: "For the record.... As long as I am Mayor and the US Supreme Court says it's ok, I am praying!!!!" he wrote. "Jesus is my Lord and Savior and I am proud of it!!! I know how the VAST majority feels and I will not let a few out of town people change our city!!!"