Community Voices

Wednesday, Jun 22 2011 11:00 PM

AARON STEENBERGEN: Public miseducation at council meetings

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By Community Voices

To "miseducate" is to improperly educate. As a former educator, I would give the Bakersfield City Council a well-deserved "A" for the cordial welcome it conveys to the hundreds of local students attending elementary through university classes. Students visit the chamber for an informative opportunity to learn about city government in action.

On the other hand, the mayor and the council members have also earned an equally resounding "F" for that part of recent meetings dedicated to invocations and prayers. It appears that our representatives somehow have difficulty complying with constitutional dictates concerning the avoidance of entanglement with religion; specifically those dictates requiring that invocations be nonsectarian and nondenominational.

By failing to faithfully observe those requirements, they violate their own oath of office, particularly that part which ends with "... and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties upon which I am about to enter." Responsible citizens should contact our City Council members and remind them of their oath.

Moreover, it is very disheartening to note that this is not the first time that our City Council has traveled down the path of constitutional aberration with regard to invocations and noncompliance with constitutional dictates. A Dec. 9, 2009, article published in The Californian called attention to the fact that our City Council had been challenged for its behavior regarding invocations. A brief quote from the article states: "A letter from the foundation says Bakersfield is breaking state and federal laws by opening meetings with invocations that reference a specific deity. All four invocations transcribed from recent meetings were overtly Christian."

It would appear to a reasonable observer that, since the earlier controversial time on this issue, the mayor and council members have learned little. In fact, the council has surpassed its previous record for misconduct, this time with several violations at six recent consecutive meetings -- all with invocations referencing a Christian deity.

Those meetings were held from March 9 to June 8. Videos of them may be viewed at the Bakersfield City Council website.

Surely, as a consequence of that uproar in 2009, the mayor and council members now know -- or ought to know -- that the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Marsh v. Chambers (1983), while permitting legislative prayers, states that the prayer opportunity must not be "... exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or disparage any other, faith or belief." Reasonable observers may see that the council invocations clearly advance Christianity, as demonstrated by the videos.

It is equally plain that, given our rapidly expanding and religiously pluralistic population, many citizens living here identify with a religion other than Christianity. Those personally affected citizens should write to their council members and request sensitivity to their different religions. Furthermore, responsible citizens who are also compassionate Christians should likewise contact the mayor and council members and respectfully remind them to strictly observe their oath of office on this socially divisive religious matter.

Moreover, good citizens who are nonbelievers need to add their own voices to protest these sectarian invocations.

On further reflection, and at length, one must simply and flatly ask of the mayor and council members the obvious questions: "Cui bono?" For whose benefit? Who stands to gain when members of the Bakersfield City Council so obviously continue to act in noncompliance with constitutional dictates concerning the invocations and the emphasis on a Christian deity?

In sum, the Bakersfield City Council miseducates our students when it promotes or supports religious sectarianism and mentions a specific deity in its invocations at council meetings. It teaches students and others by its example that such official behavior is constitutional and acceptable. On the contrary, Marsh v. Chambers and additional cases show otherwise. This is emphatically not an issue about free speech and the right to have prayer at council meetings. It most certainly is an issue about government-sponsored speech and the promotion of sectarianism and deities.

What, then, is to be done? Responsible citizens living in Bakersfield should act promptly, fairly and courageously here. They should take the time to write to the mayor and council members, respectfully requesting their compliance with constitutional dictates in future invocations.

Aaron Steenbergen, Ph.D., who has lived in Bakersfield for 30 years, is a veteran, a retired educator and a former candidate for the Kern High School District board of trustees.

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