After we reported in January on the demand from the Freedom From Religion Foundation that the city discontinue invocations at Council meetings, the mayor and Council members were deluged with emails on the issue.
They kept coming in even after we reported in late February that the practice was going to continue. And that’s fine. Public opinion can be a valuable tool in decision-making and people should be able to freely contact their elected officials.
We also support the Council’s decision. Opening a government meeting with a nondenominational invocation from the city clerk is constitutional, as City Attorney Kelly Fernandez opined. Reasonable people can debate whether it’s appropriate but that’s a different question.
The attorney for the Foundation was coy about whether it might sue if the city continued having the clerk give the invocation. We’re skeptical anything comes of it.
So why take up the subject now?
Because the authors of some of the emails were reacting to fake news.
In a nutshell, here’s what we reported:
• The Foundation demanded invocations stop.
• Fernandez was researching the question.
• Asked by Fernandez and City Clerk Lori Stelzer how he felt about invocations after being elected, Mayor Ron Feinsod said he’d prefer a moment of silence. A single meeting opened with one, then invocations returned.
Yet people wrote to:
• Protest against the “campaign” to end invocations. There wasn’t one.
• Complain invocations had been discontinued. They hadn’t. Watch the videos of regular Council meetings — they’re the only city meetings at which an invocation is given — and you’ll see there’s been an invocation at every one.
• Request invocations be reinstated. They didn’t need to be because there was only one regular meeting, back in November, at which there wasn’t one.
More concerning, some people criticized Feinsod for trying to do away with the invocation when all he’d done was to respond to an inquiry from staff.
He told us he was surprised at getting the Foundation’s letter and didn’t know who might have reported the city’s practice to it.
Yet he was accused of “pushing his atheistic views,” trying to “satisfy his own beliefs” and “being against God.”
We don’t know what Feinsod’s views about religion are but they can’t be inferred from his statement that he strongly supports the separation of church and state.
A lot of people do, including some people who emailed to say they’re religious but believe religion doesn’t belong in city government. And including the chair of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who is a Unitarian minister.
A few writers even attacked Feinsod personally — hardly in keeping with the religious principles they advocate. Fortunately, the name-calling was rare.
We don’t know where the erroneous version of this controversy came from.
It wasn’t news reports. It wasn’t from watching Council meetings, since there’d been no discussion of invocations until Friday’s strategic planning session.
Several people mentioned having been urged at church to weigh in. We trust that clergy members didn’t misrepresent the issue to rile up their flocks.
Council members should listen to all their constituents, but they’re human. It seems likely they’ll pay less attention to an email that’s erroneous and insulting than one that’s respectful and based on facts.