Atheist to give invocation at DuPage board meeting
Atheist blogger and author Hemant Mehta on Tuesday will become the first nonbeliever in recent memory to deliver the invocation during a DuPage County Board meeting.
The Downers Grove resident, who runs the Friendly Atheist blog, has written extensively about separation-of-church-and-state issues across the nation. But he was surprised to find prayers were happening at government meetings in his home county.
"It's not something we tend to deal with in the suburbs of Chicago," Mehta said.
Mehta learned about the DuPage board's invocations in December when some newly elected Democrats on the panel called for the tradition to end.
At the time, board member Dawn DeSart, an Aurora Democrat, said she was "disturbed by the primarily Christian prayers" at the beginning of regular county board meetings.
There has since been no additional public discussion or a vote on the topic.
"I wish they would get rid of it altogether," Mehta said. "There's no reason to include an invocation at a local government meeting. We didn't elect them to pray to God before a meeting or to invoke God."
But he knows the U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue of prayer at council meetings in 2014. That 5-4 high court opinion seemed to support DuPage's practice when it said the prayers are OK as long as they don't denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts.
If DuPage was going to continue to have an invocation, Mehta said, he wanted to make sure the county was allowing anyone to deliver it. So he emailed DeSart and told her he was an atheist who wanted to give the invocation.
"I thought it was fantastic that another segment of our community is going to be heard from," DeSart said Friday.
It took about a month for Mehta to connect with the right person at the county to schedule a date, but he announced early last month that he would be giving the invocation on March 12.
No restrictions were placed on what he can say.
"They handled it the way I would hope any local government does," Mehta said. "I expressed interest, and they said 'yes.' They didn't give me any hassle about it. That's good."
As for what he will say, Mehta said he's still working on it.
"I have ideas for what I'd like to say," he said, adding that he's drawing inspiration from other atheist invocations.
DeSart said she's looking forward to Mehta's remarks.
"From everything I've heard about him, he's going to be respectful," she said.
Mehta said he doesn't want to disrupt the meeting or denigrate the beliefs of others with his remarks. But he is hoping his appearance prompts the board to have another discussion about prayer.
"Ideally, they will eventually decide they're better off starting these meetings without an invocation," he said.
But DeSart said she has no plans to seek a formal vote to end the invocation this year because of the Republican majority on the board.
"I don't really see this going anywhere until after the 2020 election," she said, "when hopefully we could get more progressive people on the board."