FLOUR, SUGAR, EGGS and SUBTEXT

I gave an invocation at the March 22 Jacksonville City Council meeting. It was the first time a known atheist had given the invocation. It was a secular invocation, free from any mention of a god or gods.

AG Gancarski wrote in the March 30 edition of Folio Weekly Magazine that my invocation was “about as interesting as a hamburger without any meat.”

But most people said it was thought-provoking, stimulating, and inspiring.

I knew what needed to be said when I first contemplated giving an invocation; I needed to write something simple and succinct that would resonate in the hearts and minds of anyone but a sociopath or a psychopath.

The city of Jacksonville is similar to much of the United States in many ways, but one in particular. This is a city full of immigrants, descendants of immigrants, black and white, gay and straight, liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious, and everything else you can imagine. It is not a city made up of white and various shades of white, or Protestantism and various denominations of Protestantism. It’s a city consisting of every flavor and essence of humanity, with as many worldviews as hamburger joints.

In my invocation, I quoted a few lines of “The New Colossus,” a sonnet by Emma Lazarus, which is engraved on the Statue of Liberty. By putting Lazarus’ poem on the pedestal at the base of the Statue of Liberty, our country invited anyone and everyone not only to come here and live among us, but to come here and enjoy the freedoms guaranteed to all of us by our Constitution.

There is a subset of the population of this country who need to be constantly reminded that plurality is the rule, not the exception, and freedom and equal rights are not just for a majority of the population.

The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution, more commonly known as the Bill of Rights, specifically address a laundry list of freedoms guaranteed to all citizens. The reason for creating the Bill of Rights was a no-brainer for the framers of the Constitution: The majority should never infringe upon the rights of the minority.

We have examples of the tyranny of the majority playing out practically every week in this country. The governor of Georgia recently vetoed a bill that would have allowed people to refuse to hire potential employees, refuse to rent property, or refuse to provide education or charitable services based on religious beliefs. Oh, and let’s not forget refusing to bake wedding cakes based on religious beliefs. The god of Christianity is very clear about wedding cakes for the LGBT folks: If you ain’t straight, no cake for you!

Mississippi’s Governor Phil Bryant recently signed into law the Protecting Freedom of Conscience From Government Discrimination Act, a law that allows businesses to refuse services to gay couples based on religious objections. This was a direct reaction to the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court ruling legalizing gay marriage. Simply and succinctly, the new Mississippi law is anti-LGBT legislation.

HB 2 is North Carolina’s version of the anti-LGBT legislations sweeping the country. Called Public Facilities Privacy & Security Act, the new North Carolina law requires transgender people to use public restrooms according to the biological sex on their birth certificates. This was a reaction to a recently enacted LGBT protection law in Charlotte, North Carolina where city leaders addressed the need for better bathroom accommodations for transgender individuals. HB 2 was a wake-up call to progressive communities. Get in line, or we (the state) will strip you of any power you thought you possessed.

HB 2 bans local governments from passing any laws protecting gay and transgender people, the final nail in the coffin for Charlotte or any other city in North Carolina wanting to adopt LGBT protection laws. This ban on LGBT protection laws wiped out nearly two dozen local laws that include LGBT protection. HB 2 is causing a lot of discussion on local and national news shows and backlash in the business sector about LGBT protection laws, but there’s more.

HB 2 included a sentence that slipped by a lot of folks. It reads: No person may bring any civil action based upon the public policy expressed herein. In other words, you cannot sue in a state court if you feel you have been discriminated against. Without going into too much detail, this new law set back civil rights by more than a half-century, especially worker’s rights and race discrimination. The day I submitted this piece for publication, the governor of North Carolina was slicing and dicing his new anti-LGBT law in an effort to stop the pullout of major business interests from his state.

What North Carolina did in HB 2 was exactly the sort of stuff that I wanted to indirectly address in my invocation.

Pointing out Lazarus’ poem at the bottom of the Statue of Liberty was meant as a reminder that we as a nation cannot invite people to our country and then deny them the rights other citizens are guaranteed.

Bringing up the fundamental reason James Madison had for writing the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — the idea that government must have a set of irreversible constitutional mandates in place to ensure the majority can never take away the rights of any minority — was the only way to point out that a religious belief should never usurp the rights guaranteed by our Constitution. That is why the First Amendment states emphatically that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. Establishment is a noun, not a verb. The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment is saying Congress shall not favor religious establishments.

I didn’t want my invocation to sound like those at previous meetings. Appealing to human intellect, empathy, cooperation and teamwork was a way to point out that if you need something accomplished, tap into the talent humanity possesses.

The city of Jacksonville is struggling to add LGBT protection to its Human Rights Ordinance. In my invocation, I wanted to promote respect for all people, not just white, straight, male, Anglo-Saxon Protestants; but most of all, I wanted to promote fairness and freedom. Those may be boring, dull concepts if you’re a fascist or selfish or don’t play well with others, but to most of us, they are concepts near and dear to our hearts, and always on our minds.

I’ve heard the naysayers’ cake-baking argument. A business should have the right to refuse service to anyone the business deems an undesirable customer. No shoes, no shirt, no service. We all get that. But what happens when an establishment in the business of baking wedding cakes hangs a sign in the window that says “No service to black people”? Or Hispanics? Or Jews, Muslims and women? You’d never get away with it. Why is a business prohibited from denying service to blacks, but it’s acceptable to deny service to LGBTs?

I had a message embedded in my invocation. It was an appeal to the members of the Jacksonville City Council to do the right thing regarding LGBT rights: Let them eat cake.

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Coggins is president and founder of First Coast Freethought Society. This piece was previously published on wordsfromearl.wordpress.com.

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october, 2021

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