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Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

It Pays to Complain: Questions get the ball rolling

By Jim Diedrich

For the past 10 years I’ve lived in a small town of about 5,000 people on Cape Ann in Massachusetts called Manchester-by-the-Sea. The town was established in 1644 and originally named Jeffery’s Creek. 

About a year ago, I wrote to FFRF requesting advice on how to approach government regarding sectarian invocations. Following your suggestion, I approached Massachusetts’ secretary of state, asking why invocations are always secular. I was referred to our town clerk, who advised me that she thought invocations were the purview of our town moderator.

I then asked our town moderator why, for over 370 years, our annual town meeting has always begun with an invocation given by a clergy person. The moderator’s initial reply was to challenge why I asked. When I replied that I was an atheist, or, if he preferred, a secular humanist, that seemed to put him off a bit. But, to his credit, he said he’d get back with me to discuss the issue.

That conversation took place in early summer of 2017, and I finally did hear back in December of that year when he asked me to join him for a coffee. After speaking for more than an hour, our moderator said he really had no idea what people who are atheists or secular humanists actually believe, or don’t believe. He told me after speaking with me that he thought I was a reasonable person and he would think about allowing a nonsectarian invocation at some point.

Then, in early winter, he approached me to review a letter he was proposing to publish in our town newspaper, advising that the upcoming town meeting would include a nonsectarian invocation. He also asked if I would be interested in giving it. For his letter to the town, I suggested he describe me as a secular humanist, since I thought it might be less offensive term to some rather than the word “atheist.”

I did give my invocation as planned and the response was mostly favorable — and certainly not hostile. To prepare, I read a ton of nonsectarian invocations from a wide variety of sources and used some of the material along with my own thoughts. I can’t say my version was totally original, but I didn’t actively steal from others (other than the words about Carl Sagan).