Dan Nerren, one of the founders of the Humanist Association of Tulsa, gave the invocation at Tulsa’s City Council meeting Thursday and as far as he knows, he is the first atheist to give an invocation at the meeting.
Nerren stated that before he became an atheist, he attended a Southern Baptist Church, but after reading a book about the contradictions in the Bible, he lost his faith.
According to Nerren, several atheist groups petitioned the Council to deliver a Secular invocation for several years without success, but then they decided to allow a non-theist group to give the invocation.
"I'll be invoking the council, not a deity," he said.
He said he would invoke councilors to "open our hearts to the welfare of all people in our community by respecting the inherent dignity and worth of each person."
His invocation will conclude: "We must remember that in the face of adversity, we need not look above for answers but instead recognize the proven potential within ourselves and in each other to overcome any challenges we face."
City Council Chairman G.T. Bynum stated that as a Catholic, he had no problem with an atheist delivering the invocation. He also stated that the Council included all faiths, including Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Wiccans, and those of Native American religions. The Council is not exclusive to Christians, so including an atheist does not bother him.
"It's fine," he said.
"As a Catholic, I'm not terrified of an atheist giving an invocation. There are things of value you can learn from any religious perspective."
Karl Sniderman, a board member for the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and Jew, monitored the meetings for several years and found that he was not alone in finding addressing prayers to Jesus offensive. A Muslim was also offended and they asked the Council to stop delivering sectarian prayers before the meeting.
The Council stopped for several weeks and then, 2008 the Council took a vote to reinstate them, which passed 7-2, thereby allowing sectarian prayers again. Since then, Sniderman stated that over 90% of the prayers included Jesus, Christ, Lord, or a Bible verse, which bothered him, but he has no problems with a non-sectarian prayer.
“They've been reminded multiple times that what they're doing is unconstitutional," Sniderman said.
Brynum argues that the prayers are Constitutional based on the Marsh v. Chambers, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1983, which states that opening a governmental meeting with prayer is "deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country" and therefore Constitutional.
Bill Dusenberry, vice president of the Northeast Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said allowing an atheist to offer the invocation was "a very good move on the part of the council. It shows a willingness to accommodate diversity."
"It's better than nothing. The best would be not having prayer at all. It's just pandering to the tyranny of the majority," he said.
"Our goal is to have them stop completely the practice of having prayer as a formal part of the public meeting."
The Tulsa City Council opened their meetings with prayer since 1990, when the city first formed the Council.
The full text of his invocation can be found on Tulsa World website as an extra.