“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the U.S. Constitution reads. That federal document isn’t stopping the council of Greenville County, South Carolina from tossing lightning bolts and laying holy hands right before every scheduled meeting, though. And it recently refused to respond to an atheist’s request to offer invocation not affiliated with any church.
But Greenville County Council has allowed other faiths, limited to various denominations of Christianity and Judaism, to open its meetings with prayer, says Mike Cubelo of Upstate Atheists. He and other atheists respectfully listen to those prayers, but should have equal opportunity, he says. Cubelo, whose offers to conduct a secular invocation were never accepted, told local NBC affiliate WYFF-4:
We want to be able to actually do an invocation and have you sit down and listen just like we have been doing all these years. […] We pay taxes just like you and we want to be a part of a public meeting that you’re a part of.
Cubelo’s multiple requests have received no response, though, he says. He said to local CBS station WSPA-7:
We didn’t even get the courtesy of an acknowledgment that we want to do one. And that’s upsetting because we are taxpayers. We are citizens.
Many council members defended their decision to overlook Cubelo’s requests. Said Councilman Joe Dill:
We’ve had all kinds. We’ve had Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals. We’ve had Jewish rabbis. I think it sets the tone for the meeting. The invocation of God’s blessing on a meeting makes it a good, calm atmosphere where a meeting of the minds comes to the table.
This refusal from Dill and other council members to accept Cubelo’s request violates a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision, however. In May 2014, SCOTUS ruled that town boards could open meetings with prayer, but with secularity. In other words, no specific faith can be solely promoted, and no variation could be denied.
Religion in government remains a long-standing issue in South Carolina, one that’s seen some progress but which hasn’t been fully incorporated, unfortunately. For example, a College of Charleston professor applying to be a notary public in 1992 had his application returned, and because the atheist applicant struck out the words “so help me God” on the document. The state’s Supreme Court ruled in 1997 that South Carolina could not refuse his application on that basis.
However, the state’s constitution still requires faith for elected officials. Its Article 17, Section 4 reads:
No person who denies the existence of a Supreme Being shall hold any office under this Constitution.
Six other states – Arkansas, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas – all have similar requirements for elected officials, which range from established faith in an “Almighty God” to acknowledgement of an afterlife with heaven and hell.
Cubelo and Upstate Atheists are planning to seek legal consultation if Greenville County Council doesn’t honor his request, he told WYFF.