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Atheist sues Wyoming city for $24 million over its religious invocations
Bruce Williams told me the city of Gillette suppressed his atheist beliefs by letting Christians deliver just about all the invocations at government meetings
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An atheist in Wyoming is suing the city of Gillette for $24,250,000, claiming they suppressed his religious beliefs by letting Christians deliver just about all the invocations at city council meetings. The lawsuit was filed late last month.
Bruce B. Williams says that the city council has about 24 meetings per year, and since roughly a quarter of Wyoming citizens are unaffiliated with religion, there ought to be a proportional number of secular invocations. He wants to deliver at least two, he says, but possibly five or six if no other non-theists step up. In 2017 and 2018, he gave two invocations. Since then, he’s been limited to one a year.
Williams says the city has rejected his requests to deliver additional invocations while giving Christians—specifically a select group of them—just about all the opportunities to deliver the rest of them.
"The City refused my request for multiple invocations," said Williams in his lawsuit, adding that city leaders wouldn't tell him what group was "controlling those that were giving the invocations."
Ultimately, Williams said in the suit, he learned that an unincorporated Christian group conducted many invocations. He said the city has been "creating a mockery of my Atheist beliefs through (its) deliberate preference for Christianity," and by either prohibiting or limiting his "worship" as an atheist.
It’s worth clarifying a few things here: While Wyoming is about 26% unaffiliated, atheists are about 3% of the population. Using that estimate, atheists should be giving one invocation a year. Which is exactly what’s happening.
But none of that even matters because that’s not how any of this works! It’s not like the city is obligated to have a Mormon speaker, a Muslim speaker, and a Satanist speaker in the mix. There are far more religions represented in Wyoming (yes, Wyoming) than the number of meetings of the city council. And all that assumes non-Christian speakers are requesting to give those invocations. If they did, the city couldn’t refuse them, assuming they’re trying to accommodate everyone to the best of their abilities, but there’s no rule that says a city council has to dole out invocation opportunities based on the latest statewide religious demographics.
Williams, however, told me in a phone call last night that he’s simply taking a page from the Wyoming Constitution, which says, “The free exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination or preference shall be forever guaranteed in this state.” By his reading of the statute, limiting him (as an atheist) to one invocation a year is an act of discrimination.
Is it, though? Keep in mind that the Supreme Court ruling that said explicitly religious invocations are constitutional (at local government meetings) has been interpreted to mean everyone who wants to deliver them should have the chance to do so. In practice, that means there should be a fair way of making sure anyone who wants to give an invocation can sign up to do so and have the same opportunity as everyone else. Maybe that’s a lottery. Maybe that’s a first-come-first-serve system.
What you can’t do is have one Christian chaplain give every prayer or rotate between a select group of local church representatives. It’s troubling that Williams has had to request these invocation opportunities while Christian pastors haven’t had to jump through the same hoops. They’re playing by different rules.
So it seems like the city of Gillette has a mix of a pastors’ group handling invocations (which is bad!) while allowing others to speak every now and then (which is the least they could do).
[Williams] said the city “hid this arrangement” with the Christian group “by never announcing it in public, never advertising for invocation givers, and never telling me I was under the thumb of this Christian group.”
He said that if the roles were reversed, there would be an outrage.
The city’s system can and should be fixed, but it doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut case of discrimination if others are allowed to speak. That said, he’s not wrong about the outrage if the shoe were on the other foot.
Williams also says in the lawsuit that city council members have walked out of the room as he’s speaking, sending the message that his beliefs are “nothing but horse manure.” Is that really a problem, though? They have the right to leave. There’s no law that says they have to listen to him speak. It’s arguably rude, and I’m sure people would flip out if a council member walked out on a Christian pastor’s invocation, but a rude overreaction isn’t illegal.
Williams vehemently disagreed with me on that point in our phone call.
He cited state law that says, “Perfect toleration of religious sentiment shall be secured, and no inhabitant of this state shall ever be molested in person or property on account of his or her mode of religious worship.” His argument is that, by storming out during his invocation, those council members had “molested” his “worship” (to use the phrasing in the Wyoming Constitution). Though the argument could be made that their actions didn’t actually interfere with his ability to deliver a secular invocation.
Had those council members just remained outside during the whole process, that would’ve been fine, Williams argued, but they used his invocation to make a statement, and that’s what upset him.
Williams also says in the lawsuit that on a couple of occasions, when he was delivering an invocation, he was also asked to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. It’s unclear if that was some honest mistake, but the lawsuit makes it sound like the government forced him to participate in a religious ritual without giving him a chance to opt out.
So where is Williams getting his $24,250,000 amount from?
He says the “conspiratorial oppression” has occurred 97 distinct times over the past few years, and each instance carries with it a $250,000 fine. (That amount is the maximum penalty in the state for a violation of civil law.)
I wondered: Did Williams actually think he would get this money? Was this just a frivolous cash grab?
Williams told me the state’s Supreme Court has never dealt with the religious liberty aspects of the State Constitution, so it was an open question how the justices might rule. More than anything, though, he wanted there to be a significant financial penalty for what they’re doing so they won’t do it in the future.
“I’d like to get the $24 million,” he said. “Half of that would be my goal just so that they know the next time they pull a stunt like this… it’ll hurt ‘em again.” He added that this has been going on for nine years, and the council members needed to learn that “doing things like this is going to be costly.”
Given all that, will this work in court?
I’m no legal scholar… but no. No it won’t. He’s not getting that money. The lawsuit won’t go anywhere. For it to succeed, it would have to be the most obvious open/shut case imaginable—which it’s not—and even then, I can’t imagine any judge would ever agree to that payment.
But that doesn’t mean this is an exercise in futility. If the purpose of invocations is to bring the community together, it’s clearly failing. By not having a more transparent system for people to sign up to speak, the city is creating its own chaos. They could fix the problem by establishing easy-to-understand policies that don’t involve outsourcing speakers to local Christian leaders. They could also get rid of invocations altogether. If nothing else, a lawsuit like this serves to highlight the problem of trying to shove religion into meetings where it doesn’t belong.
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