Like a prayer: Jacksonville’s invocation rules poised for change
Pastor RL Gundy offers an invocation in Mar. 2019. His microphone was cut.

Gundy RL
What is an invocation for?

The separation of church and state, however important it might be in the country’s foundational documents, hasn’t already held sway in Jacksonville.

To find evidence along these lines, one need not go back too far. Late February, for example.

In response to a spike in the murder rate (and perhaps, perhaps an impending election as well), incumbent Democrat called for a day of healing in the Council chambers.

Said “day of healing” looked more like a revival meeting.

The hour-long event was full of prayers and hymns, with roughly 150 in the crowd singing, praying, and raising their hands rapturously as appropriate.

Councilman Reggie Gaffney, the Democrat who convened the event, was not worried about the potential conflation of church and state.

A document produced as the so-called “city prayer,” read in unison, posited that Jacksonville is “gripped by sin,” with “lives polluted by sexual sin.”

A speaker noted that the event was targeting “every sinner and backslider in the city,” adding that “Jacksonville is on the rise in Jesus’ name.”

Jacksonville on the Rise is the name of Mayor Lenny Curry‘s political committee. Curry and Gaffney generally align on issues; the Councilman’s brother works in the Mayor’s Office and was at the event.

Gaffney won his March election going away. Did this event help? Did Gaffney benefit from using city resources for a religious event timed to boost his re-election chances?

It wasn’t just Curry-crats who have blurred the lines between church and state, however.

Days before the election in March, Rev. R.L. Gundy (a supporter of one of Curry’s opponents) issued a prayer that ultimately was shut down by Council President Aaron Bowman.

https://twitter.com/AaronAbowman/status/1128847113285242882

Pastor Gundy talked about the “polluted river,” about water problems comparable to Flint, before castigating the “legislative body [that] refuses to seek forgiveness for slavery.”

Gundy moved on to address the “political climate dividing the community,” one characterized by “pride and selfish[ness]” and a critical mass of players “intimidated by the executive branch.”

Around the time Gundy got to discussing “domestic terrorism,” his microphone was cut.

Bowman introduced legislation last week to codify changes he’d put forth in a memo “on the advice of counsel.”

“[L]egislative invocations are not a forum for the free exercise of personal, religious, or political beliefs, but rather a vehicle through which the Council itself, through selected speakers, seeks blessings and guidance in accomplishing its governmental work,” Bowman wrote.

Bowman noted that the Gundy experience illustrated the need for “guidance,” adding that as Council President, he sought to “accommodate all requests” to use the Chamber.

The Gaffney event, he added, was not “sanctioned.”

“I view the chamber as belonging to the people,” the President said.

Gundy’s remarks, though overtly political, arguably were not substantially different than prayers issued from the same platform over years and years.

White Protestants, specifically those from the Baptist and evangelical traditions, have made a practice of walking the line between prayer and political oratory.

On hot button social issues, that has especially been the case.

The most recent iteration of such: the expansion of Jacksonville’s Human Rights Ordinance to include LGBT protections in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

During that process, church members flooded the chamber. One of them made a shocking confession that got national publicity.

Roy Bay‘s comments in front of Jacksonville’s City Council shocked the city Tuesday. On Thursday, though, he said he’s moved downstate, as the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office says it’s looking into his statements.

Bay, at that point a member of the Evangel Temple, described a lurid past for himself.  The story received national traction.

Bay told of his rape at “10 or 12 years old.” Bay was “sexually assaulted by the homosexual community,” he said. Then he described how he “entered into a life of homosexuality” and “going into bathrooms … and sexually assaulting kids, because I thought that’s what life was all about.”

“This (child molestation) happens in the homosexual lifestyle, over and over again,” Bay said Tuesday.

That brought enthusiastic applause from some anti-HRO members of the crowd, many of whom were bused in, along with Bay, on church shuttle buses.

The Evangel Temple’s Garry Wiggins was, along with former preacher Ken Adkins (currently on an extended sabbatical from the ministry), among the major players in the anti-HRO media campaigns that ultimately failed to stop the bill.

Some lauded Bay for establishing the anecdotal link between pedophilia and homosexuality that is central to the argument against what opponents frame as a “bathroom bill.”

These are just a few examples of how Jacksonville has conflated religious and political expression over the years.

Expect that discussions of this legislation could extend beyond the opening invocation, to a full analysis of how this city has routinely conflated the provinces of church and state.

A.G. Gancarski

A.G. Gancarski has been a correspondent for FloridaPolitics.com since 2014. In 2018, he was a finalist for an Association of Alternative Newsweeklies "best political column." He can be reached at [email protected]


9 comments

  • Antonio Verdugo

    May 20, 2019 at 5:59 am

    Don’t really get the point of this article, it propagates the myth of “separation of church and state”, there is no such thing in the U.S. Constitution. It’s a weaponized and politically charged term to justify speech discrimination.

    Liberals always claim the moral and intellectual high ground, but their ignorance is showing, what part of Free Speech, contained in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution do they not understand?

    • Brian Westley

      May 20, 2019 at 7:01 pm

      No court opinion says that “separation of church and state” is literally in the constitution, just like “separation of powers” and “right to a fair trial” likewise are not in the constitution — but court opinions use all three as shorthand for what the constitution DOES say. What part of the no establishment clause do you not understand?

      • Antonio Verdugo

        May 20, 2019 at 7:18 pm

        Congress shall make now law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
        An invocation is the free exercise there of, not the establishment of religion.

        • Brian Westley

          May 27, 2019 at 4:32 pm

          An invocation at a government function is NOT free exercise, since the government does not have free exercise, only citizens do. The government decides who gets to speak, so that would mean the government decides which religion is favored.

      • b harper

        May 23, 2019 at 12:13 am

        Brian Westley, your education about this matter has missed the relevant facts. SCOTUS twisted a historical document which, until the wrongful decision of SCOTUS, had be a key document to support the importance of faith and constant values having a rightful place in the business of the government. Indeed, this nation having been built on Judeo-Christian ethics/morals was and still is a testimony to it’s moral/ethical foundation . . . a most important part of which is that the rights oultined in the Founding Documents were given to us by God and that not man can take them away . . . a very singular and important difference between the government of the US and any other government on earth. Thomas Jefferson, as President, responded to a letter written to him by the Danbury Baptists of Danbury, CT which contained there request to have their church established as the church of that state. Thomas Jefferson responded that government could not establish/endorse a government religion . . . that is to say government was to stay out of religion/faith . . . a one way street. SCOTUS twisted the intent and content of that letter. His basis for his conclusion was that this country had been founded to avoid just such a tyranny that had been pressed upon it by it’s home country of England with had an official/government church (The Church of England) whose head was (and still is the reigning monarch…in colonial times being King George) This is one of many SCOTUS decisions that have been flatout wrong. . . another was Dredd Scott which legalized slavery.

        • Brian Westley

          May 27, 2019 at 4:33 pm

          You can complain all you want about what court decisions you think are wrong, but it would be stupid to pretend they simply don’t exist.

  • susan

    May 25, 2019 at 8:10 pm

    More historical quotes about the wall of separation between church and state.

    Some argue that Jefferson echoes the language of the founder of the first Baptist church in America, Roger Williams who, in 1644, wrote of

    “… hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Separation_of_church_and_state_in_the_United_States

  • Susan

    May 26, 2019 at 9:03 am

    A few quotes from Hugo Black’s majority opinion:
    The First Amendment was added to the Constitution to stand as a guarantee that neither the power nor the prestige of the Federal Government would be used to control, support or influence the kinds of prayer the American people can say –

    … that the people’s religions must not be subjected to the pressures of government for change each time a new political administration is elected to office. Under that Amendment’s prohibition against governmental establishment of religion, as reinforced by the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment, government in this country, be it state or federal, is without power to prescribe by law any particular form of prayer which is to be used as an official prayer in carrying on any program of governmentally sponsored religious activity.

    It is neither sacrilegious nor anti-religious to say that each separate government in this country should stay out of the business of writing or sanctioning official prayers and leave that purely religious function to the people themselves and to those the people choose to look to for religious guidance.

    https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/370/421/#tab-opinion-1943886

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