HIGHER POWER

05.27.14

Should Atheists Pay for a Prayer Day? A Nebraskan Town’s Crisis of Faith

In La Vista, Nebraska, a day of ‘faith and freedom’ hasn’t exactly brought everyone together. Atheists asked why the town was holding a state-sponsored day of faith. La Vista’s mayor railed that ‘minorities’ weren’t running his city. Amen.

Like many small towns around the United States, the city of La Vista, Nebraska, hosted a pre-Memorial Day event marking the military service of its citizens, as well as the culmination of “La Vista Daze,” a weekend-long festival marking the beginning of the Omaha suburb’s infamously muggy summers.

Featuring a pancake breakfast on the town’s municipal tennis courts—free to members of the military and their families—and a seven-hour carnival in La Vista Central Park, the celebration was almost indistinguishable from most Memorial Day festivities. That is, until La Vista’s mayor, Douglas Kindig, decided to drop an F-bomb. Well, two, technically.

The first? “Faith.” Sunday’s “Faith & Freedom Day” featured a Memorial Day service delivered by a local pastor, sponsored by the churches of La Vista. In a town of 15,000 people and 21 churches, this isn’t surprising—the first event of “La Vista Daze” was a “prayer walk.”

For Robert Fuller, a La Vista citizen and board member of Omaha Atheists, the blurred line between a very specific religion and the local government was frequent enough to merit a face-to-face with Mayor Kindig. According to a press release from Omaha Atheists, Fuller approached Kindig after the “Faith and Freedom Day” Memorial Day service with the intent of leaving his business card with the mayor in hopes of discussing his concerns about church-state separation issues. It was his taxpayer dollars, after all, that had gone to funding these explicitly religious events. That’s when Kindig dropped the other F-bomb: “Take me to fucking court because I don’t care,” according to Fuller. “Minorities are not going to run my city.”

“As someone who proudly served my country defending Mr. Kindig’s rights, I am heartbroken he used the memory of my brothers and sisters in arms to defend bigotry.”

Omaha Atheists has publically called on Kindig to explain his comments. Josiah Mannion, an Army veteran and former board member of Omaha Atheists outraged by the use of Memorial Day to push an explicitly Christian religious agenda, contributed to the group’s statement. “As someone who proudly served my country defending Mr. Kindig’s rights, I am heartbroken he used the memory of my brothers and sisters in arms to defend bigotry.”

The constitutionality of an exclusively Christian event sponsored by the city of La Vista is more muddied post-Town of Greece, New York, v. Galloway, the recent Supreme Court decision holding that 15 years of exclusively sectarian Christian prayers at city council meetings do not violate the Establishment Clause.

In Galloway, the prayer was ruled to be constitutional because the town board graciously invited representatives from all of the town’s congregations. Assuming that Kindig and the sponsoring Churches of La Vista also invited La Vista’s (nonexistent) synagogues and mosques, the mayor may be in the clear. As for challenging a constituent to take him to court and asserting that minorities don’t deserve a say in local government, however, Kindig—who did not answer phone calls, messages, or e-mails from The Daily Beast—may still be in for a world of hurt.