Pensacola, Florida
Tuesday November 20th 2018

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David Suhor and The Latest Battle Over Prayer

By Steven Poulin and Scott Satterwhite

The battle over the separation of church and state is, once again, being waged in a local school district. To quote Yogi Berra, “Déjà vu, all over again.” The new phase began when local jazz musician David Suhor asked to give the opening invocation at a recent Escambia County School Board (ECSB) meeting. The board, specifically board member Jeff Bergosh, refused. Not because Suhor wanted to pray at the ECSB meeting, which often opens with a Christian prayer, but because Suhor is not a Christian.

Though Suhor enjoys living in Pensacola, he often feels “crushed” by the ubiquity of religion throughout the area. But like many non-Christians, Suhor’s come to accept this aspect of Pensacola. Suhor identifies religiously as an agnostic pagan pantheist and made waves recently by insisting Escambia County’s local governing bodies, which often open public meetings with a Christian prayer, respect minority religious views or do away with the opening invocation. His doggedness about religious inclusion mostly results from local officials resistance to do away with the prayers altogether over the standard moment of silence.

Ultimately, Suhor prefers that the county bodies open with moments of silence instead of religious prayer. The Santa Rosa County School Board has been doing as much since 2009 following lawsuits against faculty-led prayer at Pace High School. But Suhor feels that since the Supreme Court’s recent Town of Greece v. Galloway decision (that ruled prayers were acceptable at local government meetings so long as they did not denigrate other religions) government boards that allow prayer at their meetings should allow prayers of all religions. To do otherwise would be religious discrimination and, according to many civil libertarians, a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

“Religious freedom is eroded when the government endorses any particular religious viewpoint,” said Benjamin Stevenson, staff attorney with the local chapter of the ACLU, after initially filing its lawsuit against Santa Rosa School District for endorsing religious practices in 2008. The ACLU won its case the following year. Santa Rosa County schools now open with a moment of silence instead of Christian prayer. Not so for ECSB.

Suhor said the ECSB’s actions act to endorse one religion over all others by allowing almost solely Christian-led prayers at the board’s invocations. In one instance in particular, the ECSB allowed Escambia High School coach Willie Spears (who was recently fired for insubordination not related to this issue) to lead the school board in prayer. Spears ended his prayer: “I pray that when people see the ECSD seal, they will think of Jesus the Christ.” For those who do not agree with this view, statements as such set them at odds with their elected representatives.

To some, Suhor’s agnosticism and pagan beliefs are off-putting. According to Suhor, identifying as agnostic “means you don’t claim to know with any certainty that there is any supernatural power.” Pagan is also a complicated term. “Traditionally used by Christians to describe anyone, especially polytheists, who do not accept the traditional Biblical interpretation of God and there being only one god and no others,” Suhor said. “Pantheist believes that the spirit of life, if you want to call it that, or God, exists in all creation among all things.”

Suhor’s religious crusade has noted some victories—most notably when the Escambia County Commission opened with him singing the invocation of “A Call to the Four Directions” by the anarcho-feminist and pagan writer Starhawk. Although Commissioner Wilson Robertson walked out during it, the YouTube video* of the invocation remains popular and has garnered over 75,000 views with nearly unanimous support in the comment section.

Still, according to Suhor, the ECSB is still less than amused and shows little interest in opening their invocations to other religions. He says he called the ECSB back in June to do an invocation and was put in touch with Board member Jeff Bergosh. Suhor says Bergosh asked him if he was Christian. When Suhor said he wasn’t, he was asked “Well, what are you?” When Suhor said he wanted to do a pagan/pantheist invocation, he claims Bergosh told him “Not on my watch.”

According to Suhor, he contacted other Board members who categorically rejected him. Even Board member Patty Hightower, who had accepted his invitation at first, later rescinded it at a ECSB meeting. In protest to his exclusion, Suhor opened a prayer rug before the meeting was called to order and chanted, what Bergosh described as “gibberish,” but what Suhor said was “Hare Krishna.”

While Suhor argues for the separation of religion and government, Bergosh thinks prayer should be accepted in public, including the meetings of elected officials. “I have three kids who all participated in sports, and one of the most heartwarming things I see is when kids huddle up around each other before a game and they pray,” Bergosh said.

According to Bergosh, prayers are necessary at ECSB meetings because school board members often deal with “heavy issues.” These “heavy issues” require prayer over a moment of silence, Bergosh relayed. “We have to acquiesce in this nation so frequently to a vocal minority of people. In this case we should be able to, as individual Board members, invite to prayer who we want, and not [try] to make someone like Suhor happy.”

Both Suhor and Bergosh have been dueling their complaints with each other in their respective blogs.* Bergosh also alleges that Suhor had been invited, but declined at first because of personal scheduling conflicts. Suhor disagrees with Bergosh’s version of the story. Yet Suhor’s main contention is not with Bergosh but with the school board’s system of choosing who gets to do invocations, which rotates among individual board members. This rotating system favors Christian churches with little accommodation of other faiths while putting those of other beliefs to a “religious test” when they request to do the invocation, as happened with Suhor.

To Suhor, this battle over public prayer is ultimately about equality for minority religions. “If you open it up to one religion, you have to open it up to everyone, without discriminations,” Suhor said.

While Pensacola certainly has a reputation as a largely Christian community, the region is more religiously diverse than is often acknowledged.

According to statistics gathered by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)* in 2010, only 53.2 percent of the population identify with a particular Christian congregation. The other half is divided between the other world religions, including Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Paganism and many more. The vast majority of Escambia residents in this group, however, do not identify with any religion whatsoever. This study underlines Suhor’s issues with the ECSB.

Suhor said Bergosh “has this idea that the audience is 100 percent Christian.” But Bergosh claims the issue is not about religion, but instead is about Suhor’s desire to “make a splash” in the media. Bergosh said he will even invite some non-Christians to do the invocations by the time of the rotation in January to make this point.

Whether Suhor or another pagan will be called to offer the invocation awaits to be seen. Nonetheless, Suhor wants his critics to see this issue as he does. “I would like people to consider how it feels for someone who is not of the majority religion to try to participate in their local government and feel like they are being prayed at by someone who is endorsing a religion.”

To Suhor, the issue is not about him. He would rather this controversy go away so he could return to practicing what he says is his one true religion—music. “This is not about me at all. I would not put myself out there to get attention in such a negative way, especially as a musician, if I didn’t feel this is a just call and there are legal [issues] going on in all of our boards, but especially the school system.”

*Suhor’s invocation to the Escambia County Commission can be seen at youtube.com/watch?v=RjkwPK8HuKQ
*Bergosh’s blog: jeffbergoshblog.blogspot.com; Suhor’s: anapplebiter.blogspot.com
*The Association for Religious Data Archives’ regional report is searchable by zip code and found at: thearda.com/rcms2010/