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Secular invocation: Linda Stephens

Linda Stephens

Greece (N.Y.) Town Board

April 15, 2019

Good evening. I’m happy to be here tonight representing the atheist community of Rochester.

When people hear that an atheist is going to deliver an invocation before a government meeting, they often scratch their heads and ask, “What’s an atheist invocation?” It is not, as one cartoonist depicted, someone standing at the podium reading from Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species, although I do find some humor in that.

No, an atheist invocation is sometimes not that different from an invocation or a religious address delivered by a religious leader — with one notable difference. Here’s an example: On St. Patrick’s Day, President Trump attended a church service at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. The Rev. Bruce McPherson officiated. It was right after 50 people had been shot to death by a white supremacist in Christchurch, New Zealand. When he spoke that day, Rev. McPherson challenged the people in front of him, including the president, to denounce the hate that inspired this horrendous act. And Rev. McPherson told the people before him why they should do this. He said they should do this because it is what God expects them to do. It is what gospel tells them to do.

An atheist would absolutely agree with everything Rev. McPherson said about this, except for the last part. Atheists believe we should speak out against hate because of the common values that bind humans together.

This evening, I would like to follow the example of Rev. McPherson. On St. Patrick’s Day, he challenged the people in front of him to have the courage to denounce the hate that inspired a young white man to gun down 50 innocents Muslims in New Zealand.

I would like to challenge, you, the leaders of this own, to have the courage to denounce the hate that inspired a 16-year-old boy from our community, along with three other young adults, three of them Boy Scouts, two of them Eagle Scouts, to plot to kill an untold number of innocent Muslims in a community far from Greece, N.Y.

Similarly, I would like to challenge you to have the courage to denounce the hate that inspired a 22-year-old resident of the town of Greece to express support for the gunman who killed those 50 worshippers and who called for a similar attack in Baltimore.

And just yesterday, in the town of Greece, a Christian church was vandalized in what may turn out to be a hate crime. If that is true, it underscores the need for our leaders’ voices to be heard.

In conclusion, I would like to leave you with this thought. It doesn’t matter whether you denounce hate because your god expects you to, or because of the common values we human beings share. What matters is that you are moved to do it.

Linda Stephens is an organizer for the Atheist Community of Rochester and vice president of the Rochester chapter of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. She and Susan Galloway were plaintiffs in the 2014 Town of Greece Supreme Court decision that emboldened nontheists to begin delivering invocation before government meetings.

Linda Stephens