As various government bodies in the United States navigate what is and isn’t a violation of restrictions against the endorsement of a particular religion (aka the separation of church and state) when giving an opening invocation, two models have emerged. The first model says you can have sectarian prayer (ie specific invocations to named deities or powers) so long as everyone is invited to participate, and the second model says that only nonsectarian (ie generic invocations to “god”) prayers are acceptable. Conservative Christians activists generally favor the first model, while secular civil liberties organizations broadly prefer the second. Between these two poles a variety of variations have been tested, often in the courts.
In many cases modern Pagans, specifically Wiccans, have been caught in the tumult of what is and isn’t permissible. For example, there’s the “include a Wiccan” gambit to protect yourself from accusations of “open” invocation models that seem to only invite Christians (though mere randomness sometimes isn’t enough), and then there’s the “we don’t want to include a Wiccan” model famously undertaken by Chesterfield County, Virgina. In that case a rotating sectarian model was challenged by a Wiccan when she wasn’t allowed a turn, the county board changed their policy to nonsectarian during litigation and that seemed to be enough to make exclusion of minority faiths permissible. This “nonsectarian monotheist invocations only” policy seems to have made an impression as it is now being emulated by Frederick County, Maryland.
“Board members voted 3-to-2 on Thursday to invite religious leaders to attend their meetings to invoke “divine guidance” for the commissioners and their deliberations. The religious leaders must be ordained and affiliated with a monotheistic religion with an established congregation in Frederick County. Their prayers must avoid referring to any particular religion, denomination or sect.”
The restriction to only “monotheistic” faiths is echoed in local coverage as well. An NBC Washington headline specifically called it the “Wiccan-Proof Prayer Policy.” Here’s what County Commissioners say about their new policy in a press release.
The Frederick Board of County Commissioners today approved an invocation policy to allow prayer at certain of its meetings, consistent with the Chesterfield County, Va., invocation policy upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit. [...] “We do not believe there would be any disagreement from the majority of Americans that we are still ‘one nation under God,’ as we say in our pledge of allegiance, and that it says on our dollar bill, ‘In God We Trust.’ Our policy does not mandate a one-county religion or endorse any religion over another, but we do acknowledge our Creator.”
While one commissioner was against the new policy because it didn’t allow sectarian prayers to Jesus, he is no doubt mollified by the reassurance that no polytheist will be allowed an invocation. Since the Chesterfield County policy went all the way to the Supreme Court (who refused to hear the appeal) no doubt many will see this path to exclusion as legally bulletproof. The only reason it hasn’t been more widely adopted by conservative Christian-dominated government bodies is that they hate nonsectarian prayer almost as much as they hate non-Christian religions. Indeed, at this moment the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, who ruled in the Chesterfield case, is hearing case on the legality of sectarian prayer on a supposed open first-come-first-served model.
Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson, the senior judge among the three hearing Thursday’s arguments on appeal, at one point said that the county’s policy seemed geared to favor the “faith of a majority of residents in the county.” “The result of the policy is that the prayer is overtly sectarian,” Wilkinson later said. [...] Katherine Parker, the attorney for the residents who sued the county, said that despite the wording of the county policy, the real effect — as shown by the prayers that have been prayed — was to advance Christianity by the county government.
If the 4th Circuit paves the way for more sectarian prayer, will the Frederick County Government change policy? Is wink-and-a-nudge nonsectarianism enough? Either way, government officials seem to be ensuring that only monotheist lips utter prayers at meetings. Whether these models will ultimately remain “Wiccan-Proof” remains to be seen.