TULSA — An atheist will give the opening prayer Thursday before the Tulsa City Council meeting.
“As far as I know, I’ll be the first to offer a secular invocation,” said Dan Nerren, one of the founders of the Humanist Association of Tulsa.
Nerren is a retired railroad employee and a former Southern Baptist who said he became an atheist after reading a book about contradictions in the Bible.
He said several atheist groups have been petitioning the council for several years to halt sectarian prayers without success, but the council did agree to allow an invocation by a nontheist group.
“I’ll be invoking the council, not a deity,” he said.
He said he would invoke council members to “open our hearts to the welfare of all people in our community by respecting the inherent dignity and worth of each person.”
His invocation will conclude: “We must remember that in the face of adversity, we need not look above for answers but instead recognize the proven potential within ourselves and in each other to overcome any challenges we face.”
City council Chairman G.T. Bynum said he had no problem with an atheist giving the invocation.
“It’s fine,” he said.
“As a Catholic, I’m not terrified of an atheist giving an invocation. There are things of value you can learn from any religious perspective.”
Bynum said the council staff extends an invitation to all faiths and denominations in Tulsa.
Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, followers of American Indian religions and a Wiccan have given the invocation.
Karl Sniderman, on the board of the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, has been monitoring prayer at the city council for four years.
Sniderman, who is Jewish, attended a council meeting in 2007 with a Muslim friend.
He said both were offended that prayer was offered in Jesus’ name.
He asked the council to stop having sectarian prayers, he said, and the practice was halted for several weeks.
He said he has no problem with nonsectarian prayers.
Then in early 2008, councilors voted 7-2 to reinstate prayer, he said, and since then more than 90 percent of the prayers offered have been sectarian, which he defined as using terms such as Jesus, Christ, Lord or Bible passages.
“They’ve been reminded multiple times that what they’re doing is unconstitutional,” Sniderman said.
Bynum said city attorneys have looked into it and that he is confident that the council policy on prayer is constitutional.
In Marsh v. Chambers, 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that opening legislative sessions with prayer is “deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country” and is not unconstitutional.
Bill Dusenberry, vice president of the Northeast Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said allowing an atheist to offer the invocation was “a very good move on the part of the council. It shows a willingness to accommodate diversity.”
“It’s better than nothing. The best would be not having prayer at all. It’s just pandering to the tyranny of the majority,” he said.
“Our goal is to have them stop completely the practice of having prayer as a formal part of the public meeting.”
The Tulsa City Council has been opening its meetings with prayer since it was created in 1990, when Tulsa switched from a commission form of government.