Northeast Tarrant

After dispute with atheist, Keller council makes sure meetings include a prayer

Keller City Council meeting opens with 2 prayers

After dispute with atheist, Keller council makes sure meetings include a prayer
Up Next
After dispute with atheist, Keller council makes sure meetings include a prayer

Zachary Moore is an atheist and a humanist — someone whose worldview is centered on leading an ethical life for the greater good of humanity, rather than a deity — and has given three invocations at the beginning of City Council meetings.

Each time, his invocation has been followed by a Christian prayer.

Moore, of Keller, said that he’s been treated unfairly and that the city discriminated against him because he’s not a Christian.

John Salvesen, senior pastor at Bear Creek Bible Church, who schedules the invocation speakers, said the issue with Moore’s invocation is that “it’s not a prayer,” which is what the council members desire.

Moore contacted the Freedom From Religion Foundation and was told that it was illegal for the city to deny him the chance to give the only invocation. The foundation sent a letter to Mayor Mark Mathews and the council on Oct. 1 requesting the city adopt a “fully constitutional policy” so that it doesn’t appear to favor Christian messages over others.

In response, Keller decided to open every council meeting with two invocations, at least one of which must be a prayer.

On Tuesday, Nathan Pierce, a leader from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Tim Pyle from the Alliance Community Fellowship offered prayers.

Ken Klukowski, director of strategic affairs at the Plano-based Liberty Institute, said allowing two invocations sets what could be a dangerous precedent. The institute says its mission “is to defend and restore religious liberty across America.”

“In an effort to be inclusive, Keller has stepped outside the safe harbor of court protection,” Klukowski said. “If you’re doing two to be more inclusive, three is more inclusive than two, and four is more inclusive than three.”

In an effort to be inclusive, Keller has stepped outside the safe harbor of Court protection.

Ken Klukowski, with the Liberty Institute

Standing behind court decisions

Moore and Salvesen cite the same U.S. Supreme Court decision as backing their points of view.

In the May 2014 case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, the court ruled that the small New York city may continue opening council sessions with prayer.

“The Supreme Court decided that the invocations in Greece, N.Y., were constitutional, but only because they were inclusive so they did not allow any one denomination or religious perspective to dominate,” Moore said.

In the May 2014 case of Town of Greece vs. Galloway, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the small New York city may continue opening council sessions with prayer.

Salvesen’s interpretation is different. “The Supreme Court ruled that a legislative body can have prayer if they want it,” Salvesen said. Moore, he added, is not providing that.

Moore, a medical writer, said that as a result of the court ruling, the American Humanist Association encouraged humanists to give secular invocations. He thought he would try it in Keller, a city growing in diversity that he had found welcoming.

Moore said no one responded quickly to his inquiries . After a few months, he said, he got contacted Salvesen, who told him that Mathews had denied the request.

But they soon worked out an arrangement in which Moore would be allowed to give an invocation at the Dec. 2 council meeting, on the condition that Salvesen would follow him with a Christian prayer.

“I thought it was at least a positive step forward,” Moore said.

‘Naturalistic humanist prayer’

In his first invocation, Moore thanked the council for the opportunity and asked council members “to open your eyes and open your hearts.”

“Our most serious duty tonight is to look to the community we share, the examples we make and the legacies we leave. That should be our greatest, most courageous and noble intention,” Moore said in his invocation. “Let the work done here tonight in this chamber make manifest our highest possible aspirations.”

He finished it by thanking council members for their service.

Moore gave invocations again on April 7 and Aug. 18, again on the condition that Salvesen follow him with a Christian prayer.

Moore said he “can see why it’s difficult for most Christians” to understand why he wants to give invocations.

“An invocation is a ceremony or event in which you invoke some higher authority or higher value,” Moore said. “When I give invocations, the things I’m invoking are our shared democratic values.

“For me, spirituality is a sense of connection. When I pray, I’m not praying to God, I’m praying to the people I’m looking at. My prayer is a naturalistic humanist prayer.”

Salvesen said that during their conversations, Moore “didn’t represent” his invocations as prayers.

After the Aug. 18 council meeting, Moore said, he formally asked to give his next invocation alone, “just like every other invocation speaker,” but his request was denied again.

When I pray, I’m not praying to God, I’m praying to the people I’m looking at. My prayer is a naturalistic humanist prayer.

Zachary Moore, Keller resident

‘We’re increasing prayer’

After the August meeting, Moore first spoke to lawyers with the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

The letter sent in October to Mathews and the council said that “Pastor Salvesen cannot be permitted to modify the invocation practice to include a Christian prayer at meetings where a non-Christian delivers the invocation.”

Foundation officials requested that the city stop having invocations altogether but that if the city keeps them, it must treat Christians and non-Christians equally.

Salvesen emphasized that the city feels the need to supplement Moore’s invocation because he doesn’t believe in a god. While Keller has “a wide spectrum of Christian beliefs” and Christianity is the most common faith there, Salvesen said, people of all faiths are welcome and there is no discrimination against non-Christians.

Salvesen said he finds it “sad” that Moore “changed his mind” and got lawyers involved.

“He agreed to this arrangement,” Salvesen said. “I thought it was a good compromise.”

Moore said he was scheduled to give an invocation a few days after the letter was sent, on Oct. 6, with the understanding he would again be followed by Salvesen.

The invocations didn’t go as planned.

Council members discussed the letter in the pre-council meeting, according to the agenda.

Just before the council meeting, Mathews told Moore that neither Moore nor Salvesen would be giving an invocation that night.

Mathews then gave the invocation —a Christian prayer — to start the meeting.

“That may have been a step in the wrong direction,” Moore said.

The mayor’s invocation was a one-time thing, Salvesen said, now that each meeting will begin with two invocations.

“That way, everybody is being treated the same and we’re increasing prayer,” Salvesen said.

‘Inclusive to all forms of religion’

At the beginning of the next council meeting, on Oct. 20, two Christian pastors were slated to give invocations, but one didn’t show up.

Mathews introduced the invocations, saying: “For those of you who have followed this topic, it certainly was never the heart for Keller to discriminate against anyone. The Supreme Court has certainly ruled that the elected officials have the right to invocation and prayer, and it’s really based on the history of our Founding Fathers and the history of the United States.”

For those of you who have followed this topic, it certainly was never the heart for Keller to discriminate against anyone.

Keller Mayor Mark Mathews

City Manager Mark Hafner said that after receiving the letter, the city attorney reviewed the invocation practice and believes the that new practice will “dispel that discrimination allegation.” The city doesn’t have a written policy on invocations.

“While Mr. Moore is welcome here to give his invocation, council felt it’d be best, not knowing if it’s a prayer or not,” to have two invocations, Hafner said.

Hafner said the city is “inclusive to all forms of religion” and anyone who wants to get on the invocation list is welcome.

“It is council’s intent to continue having prayer at meetings,” Hafner said.

Moore said he fears that the problem in Keller Town Hall is about more than his invocations.

“If I get into some dispute with a church and we have to go in front of City Council, I’m going to be thinking that I’ve got no chance, they’ve already decided, that they privilege Christian points of view,” Moore said. “And that is something that should scare anybody.”

A ‘fairly diverse’ list

Salvesen organizes the invocation schedule quarterly. He said that he sends every religious leader in town an email asking them to sign up to give an invocation and that while nearly all who accept the offer are Christian pastors, other religions have been represented.

It’s similar to how Fort Worth does it.

Fort Worth City Secretary Mary Kayser said she has a “fairly lengthy list of different ministers of all faith groups” the city. She starts scheduling invocation speakers “at random” at the end of the year and has had only a few repeats in the last several years because of the large number of potential speakers.

Kayser said Fort Worth accepts recommendations for new ministers and gets contact information for new churches and adds them to the “fairly diverse” list, where they remain unless they request to be removed, which is rare.

She said she doesn’t believe that an atheist has requested or given an invocation since she started her position in 2012.

Other events have expanded their prayer policies as well, including the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo, which was both criticized and praised after a Muslim imam offered a public prayer before a rodeo performance in January.

‘Invocations are unnecessary’

At the Liberty Institute, Klukowski said he sees many flaws in the Keller dispute.

For one, he said, an atheist invocation isn’t an invocation at all, according to the Supreme Court.

“By definition, an atheist can’t give prayer, because prayer is to a divine being,” Klukowski said. “The Supreme Court has defined an invocation as legislative prayer.”

Klukowski said that if Moore wants to redefine prayer to not include a deity, “it’s nothing short of silliness.”

Also troubling is the plan to allow two invocations per meeting, Klukowski said.

“There is no historical pedigree of that, that I know of,” he said, adding that whenever the Supreme Court has addressed invocations, it specifically protects a singular invocation per meeting.

Klukowski said he hopes the city will “seek competent legal counsel” before potentially opening itself up to a lawsuit.

Sam Grover, staff attorney at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who wrote the letter to the council, said he believes it’s fine for an atheist to give invocations.

“The Supreme Court has already contemplated atheist invocations [in the Greece vs. Galloway case] … so it has at least implied that it’s not a contradiction” to allow an atheist to give an invocation, Grover said.

Grover said he hasn’t heard back from the city. He also said he’s never heard of a government body having two invocations, and “frankly, this whole practice sounds ridiculous.”

“From the start, invocations are unnecessary; they are divisive rather than having the city get down to business,” Grover said. “The whole thing is frankly inappropriate, and to double it with two invocations is obviously meant to allow the humanists’ message to be diluted by religious messages, and I think that’s shameful.”

Mark David Smith: 817-390-7808, @MarkSmith_FWST

Videos of all of the City Council meetings are available at

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram