Agnostic becomes minister to give Rancho Cordova City Council invocation

Published: Sunday, Sep. 22, 2013 - 12:00 am

Steve Vincent said he typically doesn’t give much thought to religion, describing himself as agnostic, but after a recent online debate with some of his neighbors, he became a legally ordained minister and signed up to give the invocation at the Rancho Cordova City Council’s Oct. 7 meeting.

His move is not a matter of conversion, but rather a case of if you can’t beat them, join them.

An advocate of the separation of church and state, Vincent takes issue with what he sees as city sponsored and funded faith-based activities, and he plans to use his invocation to respectfully make that point.

“This came to a head when I was debating with some neighbors on about Rancho Cordova spending public money on a ‘prayer day’ recently,” Vincent said in an email. “That led to discussing City Council prayer, and several neighbors had the attitude of, ‘You should just deal with it; it doesn’t hurt you.’ That was the day I got a little peeved at the arrogance and decided to volunteer for a prayer to see what would happen.”

Vincent had noted that those who give the invocation are typically identified on City Council agendas as representatives of local churches or faith-based organizations. So he became an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church via the website and signed up via Facebook as a member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

“Fortunately, I found the city to be very open and courteous to my request, although they did inquire what church I was with, and they joked a bit when I said they can put me down on the agenda as ‘Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster,’” he said.

A city spokeswoman said religious credentials or affiliations are not required to give the invocation, although people who sign up usually represent a faith-based organization.

Ashley Downton, a city public information officer, said the city welcomes inquiries from anyone interested in giving the invocation, regardless of belief. Written guidelines state that the invocations “should be nonsectarian in nature, i.e., invocations must not proselytize, advance or disparage any one religious belief or faith. Therefore members of the community who are invited to lead invocations at public meetings must craft their invocations so as to avoid references to specific deities or tenets that are associated with any particular religious faith or denomination.”

Although the city set the guidelines, the Cordova Community Council, an umbrella organization representing local churches, and community and civic groups, is charged with selecting and scheduling people to give the invocations. Downton noted that the city helps fund the Cordova Community Council through a grant and assigns it such tasks because of its outreach within the community. She said the Community Council works within the city’s guidelines for the invocations.

A perceived blurring of functions of the city and the Cordova Community Council drew fire earlier this year from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The organizations objected to a “Celebration of Faith” held as part of the 10th anniversary of Rancho Cordova cityhood. City officials said anniversary festivities were organized by the Cordova Community Council, not the city, although the city website included a link to a website promoting the anniversary celebrations.

Judy Saint, president of the Greater Sacramento Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation, said she is acquainted with Vincent through social media and applauded his effort to make the point that prayer is inappropriate in government proceedings. She sees it as an attempt to educate city officials rather than resorting to legal alternatives. Saint said she and other members of the umbrella group the Sacramento Area Coalition of Reason plan to attend the meeting to provide silent moral support.

Federal courts recently ruled that the city of Lancaster’s policy of allowing prayers at City Council meetings was constitutional. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in March affirmed a district court’s judgment in favor of the Southern California city. The court found that prayers were constitutional because the city invited representatives of all faiths to lead them. The court also ruled that unless a legislative prayer proselytizes, advances or disparages a particular faith, it does not violate the First Amendment.

Shelly Blanchard, executive director of the Cordova Community Council, said she sends out emails several times a year inviting churches and other organizations to participate in the invocations, and also welcomes participation of individuals with no organizational affiliation. There are no criteria for who may participate, she said, and aside from issuing copies of the city’s guidelines, she does not ask about or discuss the content of the invocations.

“I say, let your conscience be your guide,” Blanchard said.

Vincent said he plans to be “earnestly agnostic, yet respectful to both believers and nonbelievers. I suppose I’ll wonder aloud if God is there, and if he is, whether we should be praying in a government meeting. That’s how I think about it. ... I hope people in the room will reflect a bit on it.”

Call The Bee’s Cathy Locke, (916) 321-5287.

Read more articles by Cathy Locke

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