Religious invocation dispute in a Wisconsin county

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — Brown County Supervisor Patrick Evans submitted papers on July 30 to place a measure on November’s ballot. That non-binding ballot measure would uphold a Christian-style invocation before full meetings of the Brown County Board of Supervisors. The proposed ballot measure read, “Should the Brown County Board of Supervisors continue to open their monthly board meeting with a Christian-style (prayer) invocation?”

The current ordinance requires that the board’s vice chair opens each meeting with an invocation. Evans charged that some supervisors wanted to open the invocation process to “anybody who comes in.” He is reported as saying that “If they are Wiccan, they pray to the devil,” and would invoke the Christian devil. He added, “I support where we have it now, having it Christian based.”

Evans claimed that he based his ballot measure on tradition rather than on an animus toward any religion. No evidence exists that any other supervisor was currently planning to change the invocation ordinance. The reaction to his proposal was swift, not supportive, and involved national civil rights organizations including Lady Liberty League.

On August 1, Evans announced he was withdrawing his proposal.

County Map of Wisconsin, Brown County in red

Brown County voters have seen previous debates about invocations. Vice chair Mary Scray used to end the invocation with the phrase, “in Jesus’ precious name, amen.” In 2012, the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation took issue with that wording. Later that year, Scray lost her seat. The new vice chair uses more neutral language than Scray did.

In June 2018, supervisor Aaron Linssen proposed replacing the invocation with a moment of reflection. County supervisors voted to maintain a religious invocation before their meetings.

Brown County politicians react to the ballot measure

Evans said that the Abrahamic god “is woven into the fabric of being a supervisor. I believe in the separation of church and state, and I believe having an invocation does not fall within the true meaning of that. I want to keep inviting [the Abrahamic] god to the board meeting.”

Supervisor Aaron Linssen questioned the constitutionality of the proposed ballot measure. He also wondered if it might be publicity for Evans’ campaign for mayor of Green Bay. Linssen is the treasurer for the mayoral campaign of one of Evans’ rivals.

“This is a colossal waste of time,” said board chairman Patrick Moynihan Jr. “It’s not a Christian prayer, it’s a non-denominational invocation.” At least one supervisor questioned the non-denominational aspect of the current invocation. Alex Tran sees no need for a prayer before meetings. “I’m a Buddhist, and I don’t understand the need to even say a prayer,” she said. Tran felt the current form of the invocation referenced the Christian religion. This “non-denominational” invocation includes the Abrahamic god and the Christian-specific term “amen.”

Brown County’s lead attorney, David Hemery, said the wording raised constitutional issues. The ballot measure’s wording appeared to endorse Christianity. Leaders of the Madison-based Freedom from Religion Foundation agreed.

Supervisor Mark Becker described the proposed ballot measure as stupid. He feels Brown County has more serious problems, such as overcrowded jails and opiate-addiction deaths.

Brown County Courthouse [Wikimedia Commons].

In 2014, U.S. Supreme Court justices issued a ruling allowing prayer as part of open government meetings, including overtly Christian payers, but barred the promotion of religion and the coercion of citizens.

Evans withdraws his proposal

Evans gave two reasons for withdrawing his proposed ballot measure. First, he said that his use of the term “Christian-style” had confused people and created discord. He said he had no desire to divide the Brown County community. Evans apologized for any discord.

Second, he had begun to work with Child Protective Services and Mental Health Outreach Services. This work reminded him to “to focus my efforts; on solving true problems within Brown County.”

Evans dismissed charges that the ballot measure was a publicity stunt. “I work for an advertising agency. If I wanted a publicity stunt, it would have been much more creative than an advisory referendum.”

The story goes national

Caitlin Gleason administers the Northeast Wisconsin Pagan Network. When she saw the news article about the proposed ballot measure and Evans comments about Wicca, she notified Lady Liberty League.

Gleason challenged the stereotype of the Upper Midwest as a Christian monolith . She pointed out that the “Oneida Nation Reservation” borders the Green Bay Metropolitan area. She noted the existence of a thriving immigrant population in the area.

She has seen minimal effects of the proposed ballot measure and its withdrawal, saying, “Mostly people voice a combination of frustration and disapproval at this issue.” Additionally, Gleason has seen no evidence that Evans is a Christian right activist. She did offer to meet with a variety of local politicians to educate them about religious diversity. Only one politician (not Evans) responded.

Lady Liberty League leaders “reached out to Evans and to the news outlet (WBAY) that reported his statement,” and issued a statement to the outlet which was subsequently posted online.

Minerva, a Lady Liberty League spokesperson, identified two issues in this case: Christian hegemony or privilege, and a conflation of Wicca and Satanism.

Christian hegemony or privilege refers to Christianity being “normalized” as the default religion, embodied in “tradition.” All other religions then become “abnormal,” “unusual,” or “minority.” For example, Evans has said that “government is based on Christian principles, and we abide by those.” Some Brown County supervisors failed to notice the Christian-specific language of the current invocation; it is so normalized as to be invisible.

According to Minerva, this statement goes beyond mere conflation of two religions. She considers it a case of Wicca replacing Islam or Judaism as an acceptable target for demagoguery. She framed it as the “if any, then many” model, saying, “If a practice/representation/image of any single faith is allowed in any public forum, then that of all or many [faiths or religions] must be allowed. It is about being afforded the same opportunities, regardless of faith,” Minerva said. The league “continually presses the “if any, then many” message in all of its work.”

If anyone wants to speak with Gleason about religious diversity in northeastern Wisconsin, they can contact her via the Northeast Wisconsin Pagan Network Facebook group.