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The Bully Pulpit



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.

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