By Nate Kellum
Special to The Commercial Appeal
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), a group of self-proclaimed atheists from Wisconsin, recently invaded the Mid-South and threatened to file a lawsuit should Memphis City Council refuse to abandon its longstanding tradition of allowing prayers before their meetings.
Instead of caving in, Memphis City Council took steps to solidify this constitutionally protected practice for generations to come.
FFRF held a press conference in the Memphis public library (on a Sunday, of course) disparaging Memphis City Council for permitting prayers. They acted as though the situation were dire. Because some of the prayers before the council uttered the name “Jesus,” Dan Barker, co-president of FFRF, decried Memphis prayers as being “more egregious” than others. He boasted that they expected to file a lawsuit “soon.”
That ominous threat was delivered about eight weeks ago. One week later, FFRF submitted a guest commentary in The Commercial Appeal reiterating “why (they’re) suing Memphis City Council over prayers.” Barker asserted that Marsh v. Chambers — the singular U.S. Supreme Court case that deals with prayers before governmental bodies — doesn’t actually apply at all. For good measure, he added that Marsh was a “bad decision.”
With all this blustering, and the passage of time, it is becoming apparent that Barker has more bark than bite. No suit yet, just threats. Barker and FFRF are, in essence, prayer bullies, promising harm should they not get their way. Just like other bullies, they prey on irrational fear.
Should FFRF ever get around to filing a lawsuit — instead of just talking about it — that action will surely fail. Why? Because of Marsh v. Chambers, the case Barker tries so hard to rationalize.
In Marsh, the U.S. Supreme Court held that prayers before deliberative public bodies are clearly constitutional. And unless Barker becomes a Supreme Court justice, it doesn’t matter what he thinks about this decision.
A couple of months ago, on the strength of this holding, a federal district court in East Tennessee refused to grant FFRF’s request to eliminate prayers taking place before the County Commission for Hamilton County. (Barker didn’t bother to mention this ruling in his guest commentary).
The Center for Religious Expression supplied some members of the Memphis City Council with a model policy for facilitating prayers before meetings, crystallizing their existing practice. By resolution, the council passed that very policy during a recent meeting.
Should the need arise, CRE stands ready to defend that prayer policy, but litigation looks doubtful at this point. FFRF relies on bravado — not precedent — in their never-ending effort to strip our country of prayer.
It’s high time somebody stood up to these prayer bullies, and Memphis City Council has done just that.
Nate Kellum is chief counsel for the Center for Religious Expression in Memphis.