Are Christian clergymen offending people when they invoke the name of Jesus in their prayers at the start of Bethlehem City Council meetings?
That issue was raised by Bethlehem resident Stephen Antalics at the end of Tuesday night’s short council meeting.
Antalics told council a plethora of Christian clergy have been giving invocations and invoking the word “Jesus,” which could offend Jews and Muslims.
He also suggested religious leaders invited to give invocations at City Council meetings should match the religious make-up of the city. He suggested more clergy of minority faiths should be invited “to show that Bethlehem is an open city.”
No one on council responded to Antalics, but city resident Bruce Haines immediately stood to tell council: “Number one, this community was founded by Christians in 1741. Secondly, we live in a nation where it’s one nation under God. Amen.”
In autumn, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a Greece, N.Y., case on the constitutionality of opening public meetings with prayers. The court’s ruling is not expected until June 2014.
While most, if not all, local government bodies begin public meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance, far fewer include an invocation.
Bethlehem’s council invites members of the city’s clergy to begin its meetings with a prayer.
In Allentown, members of City Council takes turns offering prayers or other words of inspiration, not always ending in “amen.” But many are Christian prayers.
In Quakertown, borough council president Jim Roberts routinely begins meetings with a prayer. Roberts is an elder and teacher at Grace Bible Fellowship Church in Quakertown.
Elected leaders in other municipalities occasionally will call for a moment of silence following a tragedy or the death of a prominent member of the community.
Antalics, a regular at Bethlehem City Council meetings, is not shy about initiating controversy. And Tuesday night was not the first time he raised the invocation issue. At the June 18 council meeting, he questioned whether invocations should be religious and suggested they should be kept very general so people attending the meetings are not offended.
After Tuesday's meeting, Antalics said: “I’m baptized Roman Catholic and I’m still Roman Catholic.”
But he maintained what Christ started is not compatible with Christianity today. “Look at what Jesus wanted his religion to be and what it is now. He preached tolerance. If he came back down, he’d wonder what the hell ever happened.”
Tuesday night's City Council invocation was offered by Rabbi Seth W. Goren, associate chaplain and director of Jewish Student Life at Lehigh University in Bethlehem.
Before praying, Goren said the Jewish tradition of praying for governmental well-being dates back to at least the prophet Jeremiah.
The rabbi prayed that leaders’ actions would “epitomize the divine attributes of kindness and mercy and embrace equity and equality. And may all of us be fortunate enough to see the day when our city, country and world know complete peace. And together let us say: Amen.”
After the council meeting, Goren said he appreciated Antalics’ comments. “It’s an appropriate conversation to have.”
Goren indicated it’s challenging to offer prayers in government settings that will reflect both the community’s historic origins as well as the present-day diversity of religious and spiritual groups, including those “that are more marginalized.”
The rabbi acknowledged that “some people could not get up and offer a prayer that does not mention Jesus.”
But he also said: “How appropriate would it be if I got up and offered my prayer in Hebrew? That would not be an inclusive approach.”
Antalics told council he was encouraged that a rabbi was invited to give the invocation and hoped he had influenced that. (Goren said he originally was invited to give the invocation in June.).
Antalics suggested council next should invite a Muslim imam to offer an invocation.
Council did not respond to Antalics when he asked if it is restricted to inviting clergy from within city limits. Council vice president J. William Reynolds, who chaired the meeting, reminded Antalics that he had the floor for public comment.
More than 90 churches and other houses of worship are in Bethlehem, according to a listing compiled by the Lehigh University chaplain’s office.
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, all five council members present unanimously agreed to:
- Again raise parking fines in neighborhoods around Musikfest, from noon Aug. 2 until 11:59 p.m. Aug. 11. Fines will begin at $30, if paid within 14 days. For handicapped parking violations, fines will begin at $100. All fines increase if not promptly paid.
- Hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Aug. 20 in Town Hall on a proposed ordinance that would strengthen the wording of zoning laws protecting city landmarks and other historic resources.
- Hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. July 16 before council acts to accept a $21,127 Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grant, which will be used by the city police department to prove computer hardware and software.
Reynolds announced that, because of Musikfest, council’s Aug. 6 meeting will begin at 5:30 p.m. instead of 7 p.m.