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If I weren’t an atheist, I’d be praying for the U.S. Supreme Court to ignore the latest resolution from the Chicago City Council.

At last week’s council meeting the aldermen voted to support keeping the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance. They’re hoping to sway the Supreme Court, due to rule this summer on a 2002 decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that found the phrase to violate the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. From the Ninth Circuit’s lips to God’s ear, I say. But forget the City Council–nonbelievers won’t get a fair hearing there.

By many measures the council has progressed. It’s long since gone beyond having token black, women, and Hispanic aldermen. Last year Tom Tunney became the council’s first openly gay member. But an atheist alderman? When hell freezes over–not that I believe in hell either.

Like many legislative bodies, the council begins every meeting with a prayer, led by a local minister. The audience is ordered to stand. Even when religion isn’t otherwise on the agenda the aldermen regularly bring up God in speeches. Often when the council is confirming an appointee from Mayor Daley, one alderman after another jumps up to praise the appointee for being religious. The point is always clear: religion makes the appointee a better person.

It’s irritating, yes. But nonbelievers shrug off that kind of insult on an almost daily basis. It’s different, though, when the aldermen actually go on the attack with their religious prejudices, as with last week’s “under God” resolution. Cosponsor Alderman James Balcer quietly and quickly stated his support for it, but the overriding emotion among the other speakers was anger toward objectors. Alderman Carrie Austin angrily declared she wouldn’t say the pledge anymore if “under God” is deleted. Alderman Burton Natarus angrily insisted that “mankind does not rule the world! We are human beings created by God! And if we’re not willing to express that feeling under oath, then I think we have to think twice about what we’re doing!” Alderman Walter Burnett railed, “Now you have these atheists saying what they wanna say, next you’re gonna have devil worshippers saying what they wanna say!”

Alderman Ed Smith ended the discussion in a calm tone but employed the confused logic so common among those who claim that invoking God has nothing to do with religion. “Now, I don’t want to try to change anybody’s opinion,” said Smith. “It was apostle Paul that said, ‘Let every man be persuaded by his own opinion.’ But he also said, ‘Let it be a good one.’ And I think letting God stay in the pledge is a good decision.”

It reminds me of the council’s 1997 debate over extending benefits to gay partners of city employees. Alderman Dorothy Tillman was so bitterly hostile toward gays she yelled, “I don’t think we should even be discussing this!” Alderman William Beavers was matter-of-fact but no less offensive when he said, “Man and man is like a mule and a horse. They can’t make nothin’.”

But I wonder if Alderman Natarus remembers what he said during that debate. To his credit, Natarus was stridently progay. “Most of the world today do not believe in the Judeo-Christian concepts. We happen to be a minority in the world,” he said, after many aldermen had used religion to argue against the gay-benefits ordinance. And when the loudly antigay audience in the gallery started howling, Natarus barked, “I hope they [opponents] picket my house, and they will! Because they’ve done it before, and I said this same thing. Lest we forget, you cannot tell people what to believe!”

Now, I genuinely like both of the aldermen who sponsored the “under God” resolution, Balcer and Shirley Coleman. Balcer, a Vietnam vet who was awarded a Bronze Star for rescuing wounded fellow Marines under heavy enemy fire, is so earnest he makes Mr. Deeds look like Snidely Whiplash. I’ve had a soft spot for Coleman, an ordained minister, since she announced during a 1997 debate over banning tobacco and alcohol advertising on billboards, “I have done both, smoked and drank, and if you catch me on a good day I might be doing both.” I know she and Balcer are sincere and mean well. That doesn’t make them right.

The aldermen offered the same arguments that the proreligion side has been voicing all along. They simultaneously insist that invoking God in the pledge isn’t religious and that taking it out will destroy our country’s religions. They claim deleting the phrase isn’t neutral, it’s antireligion–but won’t admit that keeping the phrase isn’t neutral. They want “under God” as a historical statement of the country’s founding heritage when by that logic we should also salute slavery in the pledge.

Though most of the aldermen were alive and even grown up in 1954, none apparently remember that “under God” was added to the pledge that year when religious leaders persuaded Congress that we should distinguish ourselves from our then enemy, the Soviet Union. Here’s a thought: our enemies today are religious terrorists. It only makes sense to differentiate ourselves again by showing that our country isn’t ruled by religion.

But the aldermen can relax. We nonbelievers know we haven’t got a prayer.

Beavers Plays With Fire

Alderman William Beavers reminds me of a description from Repo Man: “See, an ordinary person spends his life avoiding tense situations. Repo man spends his life getting into tense situations.”

Right now Beavers is pushing an idea he’s long championed–changing firefighter work schedules. He’s fed up with scandals like the recent spate of racial slurs broadcast over fire department radios, and he knows firefighters cherish the current schedule of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, which lets them hold second jobs. Beavers wants to split the fire department’s day between a 10-hour day shift and a 14-hour night shift. He thinks that will reduce racial problems by eliminating a frat-house atmosphere. At a recent joint meeting of the City Council’s budget committee and the police and fire committee, a fire department official told the aldermen that the change would require hiring about 400 more firefighters and cost nearly $30 million. Police and fire committee chairman Isaac Carothers says the idea is on the back burner for now.

Beavers is undeterred, even though a spokesperson for Mayor Daley said the mayor will leave the shift scheduling to Cortez Trotter, who was confirmed as the new fire commissioner at last week’s City Council meeting. Trotter appeared before the police and fire committee on May 3, and Beavers asked him about the shift change. Trotter was noncommittal.

“I’m just trying to make your job easier, you know,” Beavers told Trotter. “Listen, the only thing a firefighter fears is an eight-hour-day work shift, you know. Now I’m going to see if they’re going to get back on that radio and do those racial overtones anymore. They’ve been quiet for a couple of days. But listen, I want ’em to get on there and do it, because right now I’m this close from getting an agreement from you-know-who to pass [the 10- and 14-hour shift change]. And if they raise their voices just a couple of more times–and I want ’em to do it–I’m going to make ’em sorry for the rest of their life.”

Assuming Beavers wasn’t referring to Voldemort, I asked him later if you-know-who was Mayor Daley. He grinned. “I’ve got some support. I’m not gonna tell you yet,” he said.

At the committee meeting Beavers also spoke happily of former commissioner James Joyce’s retirement party. Joyce, of course, was pushed out of the job over a combination of the Cook County Administration Building fire and the radio scandal. “I was there, I walked around there, I wanted [the firefighters] to look at me,” Beavers smiled. “I wanna let ’em know, ‘I’m going to put you on an eight-hour-a-day shift.’ I enjoyed every bit of it, and so did Joyce. He enjoyed it. He just smiled, because [the firefighters] dogged him out [of his job]…as fire commissioner. [Joyce] did more for race relations than anybody in this city….I enjoyed every bit of being over there, eating hot dogs and letting them look at me and getting mad as they wanted to get. OK?”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Mike Werner.