A Peachtree City atheist has sent in a prayer request to the City Council.
Al Stefanelli, the Georgia state director of American Atheists, Inc. wants Mayor Don Haddix to amend the way prayers
are conducted at the beginning of the meeting in an effort to be more inclusive of other religions.
Stefanelli is asking the city to abandon Haddix’s customary pre-meeting prayer in favor of a prayer led by a rotation of “representatives of the different religions in Peachtree City, as well as representatives of the non-believing community.”
“Such a rotation would give the representatives of various religions the opportunity to have their deity(ies) included in the guidance of our city leaders,” Stefanelli wrote in a letter written to Haddix and the other four council members.
For non-believers, it would offer a chance to “offer their support by verbalizing the desire for city leaders to utilize their experience, wisdom and principles of reason to guide their decisions,” Stefanelli added.
In the letter, Stefanelli said while Peachtree City is “predominantly Christian,” there are other faiths represented in the population “such as Islam, Buddhism and Neo-Paganism. As well, there is a significant portion of the population that identify as having no religion, be it Atheism, Agnosticism, Humanism, Secularism, etc.”
Stefanelli’s letter contends that the use of the phrases “Heavenly Father” and “In His wonderful name” are not reflective of the beliefs of other religions, specifically those who have a single mother-type deity or those who have multiple deities.
Stefanelli also explains that “a significant amount of residents … strongly feel that government prayer is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive.”
“These citizens have expressed to me that calling upon council members and citizens in attendance to pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government. They reason that council members are free to pray privately, or to worship on their own time in their own way, and not on taxpayers’ time.”
Haddix told The Citizen Tuesday that the city attorney has already looked into the request, but he does not plan to change what he says in the opening prayer for each council meeting, nor does he plan to start the suggested rotation of community leaders.
The prayer, Haddix said, is within federal law because it establishes no religion and does not promote any particular denomination. Furthermore, Haddix noted that he does not use the name of any deity, so he feels the prayer is on solid legal ground.
“I see no reason to change it, because when change has been tried in other areas to do what he’s requesting … it always becomes confusing,” Haddix said. “So I will just keep it this way because I’m legal.”
Haddix said he does not intend to change the prayer to a “moment of silence.” He added that silence, technically, is considered the atheist’s prayer.
Haddix noted that the prayer is not an official city policy, but rather is something he chooses to do at the beginning of the meeting.
In addition to promoting religious freedom, Stefanelli said a rotation of religious leaders would also help increase community involvement and “allow elected officials to get a better hand on the pulse of the community.”
“These citizens are compelled to come before you on civic, secular matters such as variances, sewers, building permits, restaurant licenses, sidewalk repair, etc. and they feel that they should not be subjected to a religious show or test or be expected to demonstrate religious obeisance at a city function and do not believe that divine guidance is needed over such earthly matters anyway,” Stefanelli wrote.
If the city declines to adopt the rotation method, Stefanelli said his preference would be for the city to eliminate the prayer entirely.