Mayoral Mistake: Harrisburg Official’s Staff Meeting Prayers Are Wrong

July 13th, 2010
By Rob Boston
Government-Sponsored Religion, Religion and politics, Religion in Public Life, Religion in the Workplace, Religious Discrimination

Let’s say your boss holds a prayer meeting every morning at 10. Let’s say you’re not comfortable attending. At the next prayer meeting, your boss says, “Anyone who doesn’t like this can go stand in the hall while the rest of us pray.”

What are the chances you’ll walk into the hall? Isn’t it more likely you’ll be worried about getting on the bad side of your boss? Won’t you fret over your next promotion or raise – or even keeping your job in this troubling economy?

This scenario is not fictional. It’s playing out right now in Harrisburg, Pa. And to make matters worse, the boss in question is Linda Thompson, the city’s mayor!

An anonymous former member of Thompson’s staff told the Harrisburg Patriot-News that at the start of staff meetings, everyone would be asked to stand, join hands and listen to a spoken prayer.

“We’d stand up and someone in her group, usually the mayor or Brenda Alton, would say a prayer,” the ex-staffer said. (Alton, who serves as the city ombudsman, has also served as pastor of Kingdom Embassy Church, the newspaper reported.)

The Patriot-News has reported that the Pennsylvania ACLU has drafted a letter to Thompson, asking her to end her practice of opening staff meetings with prayer. Yesterday, the newspaper called Americans United to get our take on the matter.

I explained that Thompson’s personal faith isn’t a problem and added, “But she has to be sensitive to the fact that not everyone shares it and that some individuals may feel uncomfortable if they feel that faith is being imposed on them…whether that’s intended or not.”

Thompson is defiant. She told the Patriot-News, “Prior to opening the meeting, I make it very clear to all attending … that it was voluntary and they are permitted to leave the room and return after the prayer session was concluded. Not one of the employees left nor did anyone complain to me or management.”

I’ll admit I feel my temperature rise whenever I hear that business about “you can leave the room.” I’ve heard that one before. It was invoked by school prayer advocates in the 1960s and ‘70s during the effort to add a school prayer amendment to the Constitution.

When church-state separation advocates protested that some students might not want to say a prayer in school, too often the answer was, “Well, Timmy and Lisa can go stand in the hall while everyone else prays.”

Singling out young people like that is unconscionable. I suppose it’s possible that an adult might have a little more wherewithal to deal with it. But let’s be honest here. No one is going to walk out of the room when the mayor (or her designate) starts the daily prayer.

I can just hear the whispers now: “What’s up with Steve? Why doesn’t he want to pray with us? Isn’t he a believer?”

Mayor Thompson has had problems at the intersection of religion and government in the past. Shortly before her election last year, she spoke at the Bethel Village AME Church during Sunday services. The pastor lauded her candidacy and referred to her as “the next mayor of the city of Harrisburg.”

AU reported the church to the Internal Revenue Service. One could argue that incident was mostly the church’s fault. The pastor should have known better. But this latest violation is entirely of Thompson’s doing – and it appears she’s convinced she has done nothing wrong.

A mayor’s job is to oversee the city’s budget, make sure that municipal services are provided and ensure that residents are safe and have a good quality of life. I am certain that nowhere in the charter of the city of Harrisburg does it say that the mayor has any religious duties.

If Thompson feels the need for spiritual solace during the work day, let her have at it. I would defend her individual right to voluntarily pray, meditate, read religious texts and so on with every breath I have.

But the mayor does not have the right to impose her faith on city employees or put them in impossible situations that make them feel not just uncomfortable but perhaps insecure in their jobs.

Whether she cares to acknowledge it or not, that’s what Mayor Thompson is doing right now. She must stop.

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