The Bully Pulpit

| February 28, 2013

If you worship the goddess and end up in prison, you may not need to worry much longer. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals just took a case that will decide if members of the Wiccan faith have the right to a taxpayer-paid chaplain in California prisons. This story in the Times-Standard caught my eye, because if they do, under the First Amendment protection against the establishment of religion, well, maybe Eureka Mayor Frank Jager needs to find himself a Wiccan bible for the next mayor's prayer breakfast.

I don't think our First Amendment requires the government to step away from anything that smacks of religion. It just can't establish religion, and that means it can't favor any particular one. By extension, neither should the president, Congress or the mayor of a small rural town while in the role of a publicly elected official.

You might wonder why I broach this subject in this column, which is supposed to be about local media. Well, that's because the mayor is media. If you think not, check out the Facebook page for the mayor's prayer breakfast Eureka.

Teddy Roosevelt called the presidency the bully pulpit, and by bully he meant powerful in a good sense, not in the schoolyard nasty sense. By just saying something is important -- like exercise or eating healthy vegetables or conserving energy -- a president can get millions of people to follow through. It could be powerful in a bad sense. Around the world and throughout history, dictators have used their bully pulpits to get thousands of people to suddenly massacre their neighbors over religious or ethnic differences.

Jager held a prayer breakfast Feb. 7 at the Wharfinger Building as part of similar events taking place across the country. That came after Eureka citizen Carole Beaton filed suit against the city of Eureka to stop religious invocations at the start of city council meetings and to stop events like the mayor's prayer breakfast.

Her suit sparked a slew of letters to the Times-Standard. In a column in the T-S, Beaton responded: "If you want to pray, pray at church, pray at home, pray before meals, pray to yourself at any time. ... Prayer has no place before a government meeting or other activity supported by the government. People of all faiths and no faith attend these gatherings, and a prayer to a particular god for help is not appropriate or legal."

If you use letters-to-the-editor as a measure of community feeling, Humboldt County backs Jager's stubborn position big time. People here like to pray. But if you look for more empirical data, that's a different story. The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life reported in October that 20 percent of all adults in the U.S -- and a third of all adults under the age of 30 -- have no religious affiliation. In the book Religion and Public Life in the Pacific Region, religious studies Professor Tamar Frankiel wrote that California differs from most other states in that its percentage of those unaffiliated with any religion is higher in rural areas. She notes that in "the forest and farmland towns" of Trinity, Shasta, Lassen, Modoc and Butte, for example, more than 69 percent of the population is religiously unaffiliated or unaccounted. She explained that it comes from a sense of independence and anti-institutionalism on the part of Californians.

Jager told T-S reporter Kaci Poor that he can't separate the religious citizen Frank Jager from the publicly elected one. "I was elected by the people, and I do my best to represent all of the people in Eureka," Jager said. "I can't separate Frank Jager from the mayor. I sponsor a number of things; it's part of what I am and what I do in Eureka. It's perfectly acceptable for me to sponsor something like this. You bet I feel what we are doing is fine within the law."

I can't help wondering how the same people who wrote to support Jager's stand would feel if he were Muslim or Wiccan.

As an agnostic raised in the Jewish faith, public prayer makes me uncomfortable. As does Jager's statement. He says he represents all the people in Eureka. So that should include those, like Beaton, who believe that prayer belongs only in the church, home, head or heart.

In a Feb. 8 letter to the T-S, Eureka resident Donna Slater proposed a solution for those, like me, who squirm at public meetings that begin with a small prayer. "Earplugs," she wrote, "are available at any local drugstore."

It's a good thing that so few people attend council meetings or this proposal could cost the city about $20,000 in taxpayer-funded earplugs. That's my own calculation based on the Pew Research data. Then you need to pay someone to tap all those people on the shoulders when the prayer is over so they don't miss the portion of the government meeting devoted to government business. The Eureka City Council and its mayor could offer about a dozen different prayers to that many deities and one extra that acknowledges the possibility of no god. That would acknowledge religion without establishing any particular one. The Ninth Circuit isn't likely to say toss the chaplains out of the prisons, but it will consider whether we need to hire more types of chaplains as the diversity of religions in the prisons grows. But be prepared for some very long city council meetings. Talk about squirming.

In a budget tight environment, I wonder at a city council that will spend money to defend its right to say a public prayer before meetings or to allow the mayor to put his name and title to a religious-themed breakfast. Why can't people see the First Amendment separation of church and state for its intended purpose -- to protect all of our religious rights. That includes the right to not be religious. Mayor Jager, can't you just pray by the rules?

Marcy Burstiner is an associate professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. She does know from personal experience that a prayer to St. Anthony could help one find a lost set of desperately needed keys. But that's a long story.

Comments (7)

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There's nothing wrong with the Mayor holding a prayer breakfast so long as it's not on the public dime and attendance doesn't involve regular government business as city council meetings do. As I wrote in the Times- Standard, I don't see any reason for invocation at city council meetings. They're a waste of time, annoying and should be replaced with nothing but city business. If the citizens of Eureka don't want their Mayor holding prayer breakfasts, they can vote for someone else next time. I don't think that will be an issue.

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Posted by Fred Mangels on 02/28/2013 at 7:52 AM

It's really a shame that my fellow 2% ethnic peers hold these positions of Bully Pulpit media positions of social power over American lives. I'm talking about the mass media and our local media where anti-Christian Jews like most Jews are like Marcy pound out their anti-Christian views to stop Christians from practicing Christianity. One notices that ACLU rarely backs Christian right to practice Christianity but always backs Jewish complaints of Christians practicing Christianity. Marcy trots out Separation of Church and State but like most anti-Christians she forgets about democracy when it counters hers and Jewish prejudices against Christians practicing Christianity. Majority views are to be negated if they are Christian. If they are Jewish, e.g. Zionist support for Israel, no problem with Church and State separation there with billions of dollars to boot given the establishment of a violent rogue U.N. law breaking Jewish colony paid for by American taxpayers. Not a peep from Marcy about that. Oh no, it's the Big Problem of Christian Prayer by the Eureka mayor that she has to opine about lest the Jewish attacks on Gentile Christianity slacken which will never happen as Judaism as a religion produces a perpetual hard-on for the Christians and Christianity.

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Posted by Steve Lewis on 02/28/2013 at 12:22 PM

What is wrong with Frank Jagar's prayer breakfast? He used his title, his elected position to promote religion. It doesn't matter who paid the rent on the building. That is a misuse of his title and his position. And as to invocations, the question isn't whether it is Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Mormon, Hindu, or Devil worship. Religion is not city business and the Council should stay out of the religion business.

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Posted by janelle on 02/28/2013 at 10:47 PM

Steve Lewis is probably harmless, folks, but I understand why some would be concerned. And Fred, when the Mayor begins public meetings with movie reviews, we'll call bullshit on that as well. Keep your religion out of government/public meetings.

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Posted by Joel Mielke on 03/03/2013 at 1:05 PM

“I was elected by the people, and I do my best to represent all of the people in Eureka,” Jager said. If so, Mr. Jager would simply drop the "mayor" heading from his deity breakfast. Many of "The People" are no longer superstitious.
Mr. Jager was elected by a minority of "The people", (70% of the eligible voters are either unregistered or abstain in every election since the late 1970's). By all means, keep deluding yourself that local elections aren't corrupted by money and that the development community doesn't win their candidates 99% of the time as a result, sadly, the reason most folks will have nothing to do with it

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Posted by anonymous on 03/04/2013 at 7:04 PM

It's not Jager's fault you fuckers are too lazy to vote.

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Posted by Derpy Doo on 03/05/2013 at 11:08 PM

They're uninformed, not lazy. Political beneficiaries of our corrupt political system, like Jager, will be the LAST people to explain it to a journalist.

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Posted by anonymous on 03/06/2013 at 8:45 PM
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