The Ethical Dilemma: Southern Discomfort

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Southern Discomfort: I was recently appointed to a volunteer board position with a public authority in South Carolina with five years left on my term. As each meeting is opened, an invocation is offered in Jesus’s name. Knowing the parties for months now, I am certain that any offer I make to provide a secular invocation would be met with rejection and possibly result in jeopardizing my participation. On three occasions, I have acted as designee for our board chair on a larger public body (federally mandated for infrastructure funding) where an opening invocation in Jesus’s name is given. I observe such invocations without comment or participation. I do gladly participate in the Pledge of Allegiance (excepting one phrase added in the 1950s). Several mayors are on this larger public body but not on the authority board.

As a “cultural Catholic” who experienced the effects of Vatican II, of being an altar boy who began with Latin and moved to English, and of Catholic schools, I learned early that religious faiths are based on dubious fact. I am now retired, so this is not an economic issue. It is both personal and social.

I wish to remain anonymous in efforts to make the community aware of constitutional and legal issues that must be addressed in my area. Perhaps we are violating federal law, as much of the focus is on funding and grants. My wife fears social ostracization, and I don’t want to bring my burden to her shoulders.

Is there a process or structure in place which might guide me to a reasonable resolution consistent with my beliefs and rights as a citizen of South Carolina and the United States of America?

Objecting Would Be Objectionable

Dear Objector,

Kudos for considering your wife as you ponder your options. If you have lived in this area for a long time and have no plans to relocate for the duration of your term or beyond, you are wise to avoid doing something you expect will make you and your spouse pariahs in your community.

I checked with American Humanist Association Legal Director David Niose, who confirmed that the prayers are probably illegal, although he’d need to know a bit more about these specific boards. Unfortunately, however, if you wanted to challenge them, you would not be able to keep your identity hidden. Even if a case were filed with you as a “John Doe” plaintiff, your identity would not be kept secret from everyone, and those in the know could leak your role. I even deleted many of the specifics that were in your letter because I’m concerned that someone reading it could figure out exactly who you are. You never know who’s checking out this website.

So unfortunately, it seems you have to choose between continuing to tolerate this situation or unleashing the legal eagles and reaping the whirlwind. The only other option I see is to keep your antenna out for others who may feel the same way you do. If you find ones who don’t have as much to lose as you or would even relish the battle, you could encourage them to take action. Who knows, perhaps enough people will join in that you will be emboldened to speak up too. As a result, maybe some people in your circle would turn against you, but as long as you have a cadre of supporters, you and your wife should be fine—and proud.

One other suggestion: Perhaps you can widen your circle of likeminded people by becoming involved in atheist/humanist associations in your area, online or otherwise. You might be pleasantly surprised to find some of your neighbors and fellow board members there.