County fine-tunes invocation guidelines

Council works to address concerns of nonreligious residents

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer

Published:

 

Residents of Clark County with no religious affiliation may soon be offering words of wisdom, not just a moment of silence, before county council meetings.

In recent months, the county council and Chris Horne, chief civil deputy prosecuting attorney, have been revising its guidelines for the invocation, a prayer typically given by a member of the local clergy before council meetings. The practice began in 2013 as a way of bringing guidance to the county’s governing body.

The current guidelines include language intended to foster inclusiveness while also prohibiting clergy from using the invocation to proselytize or disparage other beliefs. The council is now seeking to simplify the guidelines, reduce staff time spent on finding and scheduling clergy while also making the invocation more inclusive and defensible against a possible legal challenge.

Secular issues

An earlier version of the revisions contained a provision that allowed groups with “no religious affiliation” to request “the opportunity to offer a moment of silence in place of an invocation.” But this provision drew concerns from some secular-minded residents of the county and the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based organization that advocates for separation of church and state, that it improperly excluded non-religious people from offering an invocation.

“Initially, the resolution contemplates a moment of silence and then there was a comment that that’s not fair treatment,” said Horne at the council’s Wednesday afternoon board time meeting.

During the meeting, the council reviewed further proposed revisions to guidelines, which are still in draft form. The new revisions seek to address this concern by including a provision stating that “a group having no religious affiliation may request the opportunity to offer a brief statement to reflect on the gravity of the moment, seek peace for the nation, wisdom for its lawmakers, and justice for its people, or generally appeal to universal values of our country.”

Higher power

But Stuart Riley, an atheist resident of Hazel Dell who has voiced concerns that the guidelines are unfair to nonreligious people, said that while the new revisions are an improvement, he still has concerns.

“It looks like they’re going out of their way to treat nontheists differently from theists,” wrote Riley in a follow-up email. “This document can be simplified more by just using the same language for everyone. I get the feeling after reading this, that they just don’t quite grasp the issue.”

After the meeting, Councilor Julie Olson said she’s been in contact with Riley over his concerns.

“We’re doing the best we can to get this worked out,” she said. “I think we’ve accomplished that at this point.” She also defended having nonreligious people give statements rather than invocation.

“How can you be the atheist and appeal to higher power?” she said.

Horne, speaking during the meeting, explained that an invocation is “generally thought to be a call to higher being” so it made more sense for nonreligious people to offer a statement instead.

“I don’t think it’s necessary,” said Councilor Eileen Quiring during the meeting of the concession. “But, hey, we want to be inclusive.”

Quiring added that the revised guidelines are “a lot simpler and, frankly, more inviting.”

The council expects to vote on approving the changes during a regular hearing in August.