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EDITORIAL: Invocation innovation blows chance to respect semblance of separating government, religion

EDITORIAL: Invocation innovation blows chance to respect semblance of separating government, religion

by Joseph KisselOctober 12, 2020
Pastor highlights “season of ill will” during unprecedented “double invocation” at N.T. council meeting

The NT council has opened countless council meetings throughout the years with a religious prayer, and always of the Christian vein.

Last Tuesday, something different happened.

“Let us not bow our heads, but raise them high with eyes and minds open, striving to avoid personal bias and instead embrace rational, fact-based governance in all matters,” said NT resident Donald Wittcop Jr. (above) in the council chambers on Oct. 6th.

All things considered, it was a refreshing change advocating for logic and equality instead of entreating a higher power to somehow compel the city’s common council to do what’s in the best interest of the residents.

Because time and again, we’ve seen that’s not happening with this council. (Instead, the NT council majority keeps foremost the needs of the Niagara County Republican Party and those it employs through the various municipalities it controls as well as the county government and the community college.)

“The preamble of the United States Constitution, the document you have sworn to uphold, reminds us that our rights are granted to us by government with the consent of the governed,” Wittcop said. “Let the gravity of that never turn to complacency as you work for the citizens of North Tonawanda.”

“Let us also not forget one must articulate the reason for a decision on any issue based on facts and precedent. Let us take care never to ignore science and reason in the mission of public service.”

Wittcop’s “secular invocation” was approved by council president Eric Zadzilka.

Wittcop finished with: “Finally, let us hold fast to the values of truth over preconception, justice over oppression, enlightenment over ignorance, acceptance over intolerance, and love over hate. May all of our words and actions both inside and out of this chamber be guided by these principles.”

Wittcop thanked the council and left the podium as the first resident to offer a secular invocation at a N.T. council meeting in maybe forever.

Then, something just as unprecedented happened.

Zadzilka called another speaker to the podium … for another invocation.

“Thank you for that invocation,” said Justin Collins of Vanguard Church. “I agree with everything.”

Collins was allowed to bring a guest, which makes you wonder why the NT council is still imposing a ban on residents when other municipal bodies have invited residents back into the chambers albeit with social-distancing requirements

As Collins (above) launched into his speech, for those who noticed, this was the first time two invocations had ever been delivered at the same council meeting in maybe forever, and especially during a time when extra people in the room — department heads and other city officials — are being discouraged and the public is barred altogether.

“I say, father, thank you for who you are. And in this season of ill will toward one another and season of division toward one another. A season where families are breaking apart, friendships are struggling because of what’s happening all around us.”

“That in this season of ill will towards one another that we see the light and see the truth that we get in Jesus.”

I’m not sure what this has to do with the governance of the city, and I’m not entirely sure if he’s merely pointing this out or somehow advocating for it, but I’m still listening.

“In that place we see a person who reached across social boundaries. He reached out to the rich. He reached out to the poor. We see a person that reached across religious boundaries. He reached out to Jews. He reached out to those who were non-religious. He reached out to those who had other religions. And I just say thank you for that example. And I also see he reached out even in the political realm. He has great actual influence in the political realm. And he reached across political boundaries.”

Such a pointedly religious retort to a fairly mild and unobjectionable “secular invocation” makes it seem more likely to me this was some kind of orchestrated response to Wittcop’s audacity for delivering an address that didn’t exclude *any* residents of the city.

But frankly, I also question as to whether Zadzilka initially understood the entirety of Wittcop’s request to deliver a “secular invocation” at Tuesday’s council meeting.

Which might explain why Collins — despite a council prohibition on residents attending meetings or even delivering comments — also took to the podium to give his “equal time” address. (Collins could just as easily delivered his remarks at the next council meeting.)

Of course, considering Christian invocations have been only offered exclusively at NT council meetings in the past, you’d think a respectful request to use logic and keep the needs of the people first and foremost wouldn’t require an “Oh heavenly father” retort.

I asked Zadzilka after the meeting if allowing a second speaker — especially one who’s known to be as outspoken as Collins — was a show of disrespect against a well-meaning citizen. He said no, and also said he didn’t think it was noteworthy that two invocations were delivered at an NT council meeting for the first time … ever.

Still, it was reassuring to hear Collins say, “As we move in this season, that we see that love and not forget the person that has a different opinion or different ideas. They are not to be villainized; they are not to be shot down. They are to be celebrated for who they are and understand why they believe what they believe. That they celebrate one another.”

But then my eyebrow arched as the images got a little darker:

“But as nations rise and fall, governments rise and fall, and yet to this day still stands Christianity.”

What is this rhetoric getting at?

It seems like a strangely thoughtless or naïve comment as we head into one of the most hotly contested presidential elections in everybody’s lifetime. And especially when we have moments like Vice President Mike Pence failing to say what he’d do to ensure a peaceful succession of power if his party doesn’t win re-election or when the governor of Michigan is the target of an “anti-government” kidnapping plot. All of which should be deeply disturbing to residents who favor the kind of “law and order” that might actually affect them.

Collins finished with this:

“Lord, to this still the truth without this Christianity of love. Love for your fellow human beings that surpasses anything the government could do or anything a social organization could do. And I pray in the midst of this that we see this same love and that we honor one another with that same love and we celebrate one another with that same love. And as this season ramps up and we do not forget the human beings all around us.”

Beyond trying to decipher Collins’ word salad conflating thoughts like a deity’s all-powerful and unconditional love with concepts like the secular role of government and its separation from religion, personally, I don’t understand the need or purpose of an invocation anyway.

If you must to be reminded by a higher power to be ethical and put the needs of the constituents first, I’d say you don’t belong to be up on that dais anyway.

I’d also say the Republican majority of the council — and Zadzilka in particular — demonstrated that once again they don’t deserve that honor by disrespecting a well-meaning NT resident and showing that even Wittcop’s unequal “equal time” and a modicum of separating religion and government is something that absolutely couldn’t be allowed to happen last Tuesday in NT.

About The Author
Joseph Kissel
Joseph Kissel is a journalist, editor and photographer. He is also the Vice President of the New York Coalition for Open Government, a non-partisan, non-profit group that advocates for transparency and the public's right to freedom of information.