At the beginning of every Dallas City Council meeting, long before most spectators (and many council members) are fully awake, a religious leader of some stripe stands at the podium and offers a brief prayer. A few months ago, we wondered whether the U.S. Supreme Court might declare such displays unconstitutional, but we needn't have. In its decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a five-justice majority declared that inviting clergy to pray at city meetings does not violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. So if a city wants to open every single meeting with a Baptist preacher praising Jesus, that's OK basically so long as government officials aren't performing forced baptisms.
Some commentators complained that the decision could make life uncomfortable for religious minorities participating in city government, but Slate editor David Plotz questioned the significance of the decision on last Friday's episode of the Slate Political Gabfest. More than anything, he said, it's a symptom of the national divide between towns (small and homogeneous) and cities (large and diverse).
"This would never ever ever happen in a city," Plotz said. "Even in a Southern city -- if you're in Dallas or something. This would never happen."
Oh? In our highly anecdotal experience, Dallas City Council meetings invariably open with a Protestant minister offering a milquetoast appeal to Our Heavenly Father for a productive gathering. To be perfectly honest, though, we weren't really paying attention, so we decided to count.
Since Mayor Mike Rawlings took office in June 2011, he has presided over 107 meetings where an invocation was delivered. Of those, 96 -- about 90 percent -- were delivered by Christians. (This number includes several prayers offered by Councilwoman Vonciel Hill, an ordained minister, and Sheffie Kadane, who might as well be, plus a half dozen police/fire/military chaplains.)
Five (4.7 percent) were delivered by a rabbi or representative of a Jewish organization. A Hare Krishna gave one, as did a Hindu. The "other" category includes a "Transformational Architect" from Life in Deep Ellum, the head of the Greater Dallas Asian American Chamber of Commerce, a representative of the non-religious DFW BAPS Charities, and Rawlings' scheduler.
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Also worth noting: of the 96 Christian invocations, just five were delivered by Catholics. None were delivered by Muslims, Sikhs, atheists/humanists or other groups.
Below is the city's official policy on invocations:
Our policy is to reach out and include representatives of many denominations, faiths and beliefs, and we welcome suggestions. Everyone invited to lead the invocation is provided with a copy of these principles.
We remind those invited to pray that the City Council and staff, the audience and the listening and viewing public are made up of people from many faiths and beliefs. We ask that for this setting, prayers offering guidance to the Council and public be constructed in a nonsectarian manner, prayers that touch many and do not offend.
We ask that the invocations be inclusive and not divisive, and that they do not utilize language that disparages or advances a specific denomination, faith, belief or creed.
Your participation and assistance in this is appreciated. Should you have any further comments, questions, or concerns please feel free to contact the mayor's office.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.