'You are the higher powers you've been looking for': Atheist tells board to ditch prayers

Hemant Mehta began Tuesday's DuPage County Board meeting by asking everyone to open their eyes and look around.

It was an unconventional start to what would normally be a public prayer. But Mehta, who is an atheist, instead delivered the county's first nonreligious invocation.

Some county board members have suggested the board eliminate invocations - delivered over the years by people of many faiths - that long have come at the start of its meetings. After Mehta's appearance, it was announced the county board will vote in two weeks on whether to continue such invocations.

During the "moment of reflection," meanwhile, Mehta encouraged attendees to look at each other and the elected officials who "have the capability of addressing the issues we face in an intelligent, rational and evidence-based way."

"You are the higher powers you've been looking for," the Downers Grove resident told board members.

"You have made sacrifices to be here and to serve your constituents," he said. "You have a willing and capable staff as well as an entire community full of experts to turn to when you need help. We ask you to use your time to deliberate and debate, not pray and prostrate."

Mehta, who runs the Friendly Atheist blog, urged board members to remember the nation's motto, "e pluribus unum"- "out of many, one."

"There's a lot of important work to be done on behalf of all of us," he said, "so I encourage you to spend no time on that which we know divides us when there are so many other important issues on which you can find common ground."

"Let's celebrate, instead, our shared humanity and our basic decency and do what's best for the wonderfully diverse community and county that we are so fortunate to call our home," he said.

County board member Tim Elliott, a Glen Ellyn Republican, said Mehta's appearance is an "example of our diversity and of the mutual respect we pay to each other's faith or, in the case of today, lack of faith."

He said Mehta spoke "respectfully and eloquently."

Still, some county board members would like to discontinue the invocation.

Dawn DeSart, an Aurora Democrat, in December said she was "disturbed by the primarily Christian prayers" at the beginning of regular county board meetings. She said there should be a separation of church and state.

"Ending the primarily Christian invocation at DuPage County Board meetings is the right thing to do on behalf of our Muslim, Jewish, Sikh, atheist, agnostic, pagan, Buddhist and Baha'i constituents," DeSart wrote on her blog. "It is my opinion that we, as an all-inclusive board, do not need an invocation prior to each meeting."

Meanwhile, there are board members who want the invocations to continue.

Jim Zay, a Carol Stream Republican, said other government boards have invocations and the practice was deemed legal by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2014, the high court ruled that prayers at council meetings are OK as long as they don't denigrate non-Christians or try to win converts.

"So it's our right to do this," Zay said.

Instead of complaining about the issue on social media, Zay said board members opposed to the invocation should call for a vote.

On Friday, DeSart told the Daily Herald she had no plans to seek a formal vote to end the invocation this year because of the Republican majority on the board. She said she didn't see the issue going anywhere until after the 2020 election.

But board member Sam Tornatore said there's no reason to wait.

"I say let's discuss the invocation issue now," the Roselle Republican said. "Let's take the pulse of the county board. Let's each of us take a position and own it."

Tornatore said he plans to put a resolution to eliminate the invocation on the agenda for the March 26 board meeting.

"I will be voting for the invocation and certainly against the elimination," he said. "But we need to discuss it. We need to get it out into the open and be done with it."

  Atheist blogger and author Hemant Mehta urges DuPage County Board members Tuesday to eliminate a prayer at the start of their meetings. "We ask you to use your time to deliberate and debate, not pray and prostrate," he said. Bev Horne/
  Hemant Mehta talks with DuPage County Board member Dawn DeSart of Aurora. DeSart is helping lead a push to eliminate a prayer at the start of county board meetings. Bev Horne/
  DuPage County Board members listen to atheist blogger and author Hemant Mehta as he urges audience members to look at each other and the elected officials who "have the capability of addressing the issues we face in an intelligent, rational and evidence-based way." Bev Horne/
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