Litchfield atheist delivers landmark nonreligious invocation to open Maine Senate session
It was Thomas Waddell’s second attempt to deliver a ‘secular invocation’ in the Senate chamber a year after opening a session for the House.
AUGUSTA — A year after Thomas Waddell opened a session of the Maine House of Representatives by reading a “secular” invocation, he did the same thing in the opposite chamber.
Just past 10 a.m. Thursday, the Litchfield man read a short set of remarks to the few senators who had made it to their space in the south wing of the State House.
He urged them “to rely on and trust in the collective character, honesty and integrity of your colleagues,” before reading quotations by Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams and thanking the lawmakers for their sacrifice.
More unusual, Waddell made no reference to God or Jesus in his brief remarks, as many of the invocations that open sessions of the Maine Legislature do.
That’s because the 70-year-old doesn’t believe in higher powers. He’s an atheist, a fact that was practically on his sleeve Thursday morning.
On the front of his blazer were several gleaming pins, including one in the shape of the letter A, and another that depicted a fish that had grown a pair of legs — a nod to Darwin’s theory of evolution.
“When our state legislators take time out at the beginning of the day to reflect on the solemnness and the importance of the job,” he said in an interview after his prepared remarks, “I would rather see (them) rely on something a little more tangible than a supernatural being. They can rely on the very real character, honesty and wisdom of their fellow workers. That’s where real inspiration comes from.”
Waddell, whose personal views run to the left on the political spectrum, is a vocal advocate for the separation of church and state that’s outlined in the U.S. Constitution. He writes columns for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel. He also serves as president of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation.
Based on his own research, he thinks his remarks Thursday morning could have been the first secular invocation that’s been read before a session of the Maine Senate. He also acknowledged the possibility that other nonreligious remarks might have been read in past sessions and escaped his notice.
Besides encouraging lawmakers to find inspiration in their own colleagues, Waddell also hopes that his invocations have staked out a place for different views and beliefs in state and local government, whether they are religious or not.
Prayers have been read in U.S. Congress since it was formed more than two centuries ago. The right to do so was affirmed in a 2014 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in the case Town of Greece v. Galloway.
But the court also has indicated that the practice could violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution if it includes a pattern of denigrating other faith systems, whether in the prayers themselves or in the decisions about which prayers to allow.
Waddell delivered his invocation Thursday at the invitation of Sen. Shenna Bellows, D-Manchester, who said in an interview that she has tried to bring an array of people with religious and nonreligious views into the State House.
“The invocation before the Senate is supposed to be open to all people of all faiths, including no faith,” said Bellows, the former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine. “That’s why I have invited folks ranging from Tom to the pastor at Hope Baptist Church in Manchester to the (pastor at the) Episcopal church in Gardiner, because I think that religious liberty is a founding principle in our country.”
Bellows also expressed disappointment that more senators were not able to hear Waddell’s invocation, as Senate President Michael Thibodeau, R-Winterport, convened the daily proceedings more quickly than usual on Thursday morning. Because of that, most senators hadn’t arrived by the time Waddell delivered his remarks.
Thibodeau’s chief of staff, Robert Caverly, said the Senate president was trying to move the proceedings along quickly so that the body would have time to vote on legislation funding Downeast Correctional Facility for another year.
It wasn’t the first time Thibodeau’s actions affected Waddell in his mission to read a secular invocation before the Senate.
Last May, the two disagreed when Thibodeau canceled a reading that Waddell had been scheduled to deliver. At the time, Waddell argued that Thibodeau was not comfortable with the nonreligious nature of his remarks. In response, Thibodeau suggested that Waddell had been “verbally aggressive” with a staff member of the Senate and had misrepresented his interaction with her.
This week, though, Waddell said that he understood the pressing nature of the matters before the Senate and harbored no grudge that the whole Senate hadn’t been able to hear his invocation.
“That’s just life; it happened,” he said. “The closing of the (jail) up in Machias, they’ve got to get that done today.”
After delivering his invocation, he even received a compliment from an unlikely source.
Sen. Andre Cushing, R-Newport, approached Waddell and told him, “We may not share the same beliefs,” Cushing said, but added that he appreciated the remarks.
This is the invocation I gave;
Good morning. I am Tom Waddell, President of the Maine Chapter of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. We support everyone’s religious freedom by advocating for the separation of church and state.
As you fulfill the Senate’s solemn responsibility of making decisions that will affect everyone who lives in Maine, I urge you to rely on, and trust in, the collective character, honesty, and integrity of your colleagues, for guidance, today and every day.
The wisdom of our Founding Fathers has much to rely on as well, and I would like to invoke the words of two American Presidents:
Thomas Jefferson reminds us that: “The purpose of government is to enable the people of a nation (or state) to live in safety and happiness. Government exists for the interests of the governed, not for the governors” and John Quincy Adams inspires us with: “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader”
Thank you all for the sacrifices each of you have made to be a member of the Maine Senate. We, the people of Maine, appreciate and rely on, your collective wisdom, and the personal commitment you have made to Maine’s future.