UMass Lowell students react to City Council meeting (Part I)

Lowell nativity scene on grounds of St. Anne’s Church

On the first Wednesday in January in each of the past five years I’ve ventured to the south campus of UMass Lowell to speak with students in a Community Psychology class. The course runs “intersession” (i.e., between the fall and spring semesters) and meets for many hours on many consecutive nights at the start of January. The reason I go on Wednesday is because the class always attends the Tuesday night Lowell City Council meeting. My role on Wednesday is to give some context to what the students (few of whom are ever from Lowell) witnessed the night before.

In the past, the students have always been willing participants in our discussions, about what you would expect from a group going to night class after a full day of work. Last night was different. Last night I had barely started introducing myself when the students were agitating in their seats as if they had all chugged a couple of Red Bull’s just before my arrival. The cause of the anxiety? They were exceedingly perplexed about the large role that religion played in the city council meeting. And at that point they were only talking about the opening prayer which many of them felt was out of place at a governmental meeting. That elicited a loud laugh from me. As soon as I regained my composure I explained that up until a few years ago, the council regularly recited the Our Father at the start of each meeting and that it was only after an intense debate that the council had switched to the more ecumenical, inclusive prayer they heard recited this Tuesday. I added that many in the community were still outraged that the Our Father was no longer being recited.

Our next stop was the manger. The first question was why did the council wait until 55 minutes into a 60 minute debate to ask the city solicitor to explain the relevant law. I replied that the councilors all knew what her answer would be – that the city erecting the manger on city hall grounds was illegal – and that they didn’t want to hear it.

Another student speculated that the real objective of the council was to have the statues restored and the display better lit but that the location of the display wasn’t that important to them. I disagreed with this assertion, telling the students that this whole debate wasn’t really about religion, it was about marking territory: moving the nativity scene back to city hall would be an unequivocal statement of who holds power at city hall. On Tuesday night, the councilors weren’t acting on behalf of the 105,000 people who live in Lowell; they were acting for the 11,500 people who voted in the November city election, a group that is older and whiter than the average resident; a group made up of many who not only see nothing wrong with the city spending money raised through taxes to erect a Christian religious display on the grounds of City Hall, but also see any questioning of that as a direct attack on them, their values, and their way of life. That’s why Councilor Mercier insisted on at least three occasions that her motion be decided on a roll call vote so “everyone knows where each councilor stands on this.” She wanted everyone who votes in the city election to know which councilors voted against Jesus. None did. The motion passed unanimously.

One of the reasons I think that religion should be kept out of the governmental sphere is that too often it is used as a tactic to achieve one’s political objectives. That was the case Tuesday night. The nativity scene is just another in a succession of wedges that have been used to drive people in Lowell apart on issues that are at best tangential to the mission of local government. Unfortunately, the tactic works well. That’s why it is used so often.

The students shared some observations: How the City Manager’s body language during the meeting telegraphed the contents of his letter of resignation; the amusement the students experienced as they watched city councilors struggle to use their brand new and obviously unfamiliar iPads during the meeting. We also talked about where young people get their information about local affairs, if they get it at all. We even talked about Pericles. That will all have to wait for another post that I’ll do over the weekend. The above is enough for tonight.

21 Responses to UMass Lowell students react to City Council meeting (Part I)

  1. Patrick Martin says:


    I chuckled for the same reason you did as I read how the students were shocked that a prayer is recited before council meetings. It does not belong there. It is embarrassing. The city government is supposed to represent each citizen of the city. To each his own, everyone is entitled to believe as they choose, but a prayer does not belong in the city council chamber. Although, what do you expect from local governments when the US government prints “In God We Trust” on its currency.

  2. C R Krieger says:

    Caucasian, please.

    As for the “Our Father”, which “Our Father”?  To George Anthes this may be trivial, but I grew up in a WASP town (1500 folks, four churches, all Protestant) and the Schools did the Protestant version. Even when I moved to Levittown in 8th Grade.  Which one did the City Council do?  The reason I ask is that based on my 8th Grade experience I decided that prayer in school was a bad thing.

    Regards  —  Cliff

  3. Kristen says:

    I visit your blog often to read your thoughtful and insightful comments on the political happenings in Lowell and I always appreciate the context you provide. I think you hit the nail on the head with this one. I was extremely disappointed in the way that the meeting went and ashamed that many of the councilors didn’t seem to care that they were voting to do something that is unconstitutional.

    I only recently returned to Lowell after being away for the better part of four years for college, but judging by the reaction of many of the students, I can see why other people my age or even older would be repelled by the politics of the city. I only hope that the next two years will be a learning experience that we won’t soon forget and it will help us to mobilize and elect more progressive and inclusive candidates in the 2015 elections.

  4. Mr. Lynne says:

    Regarding “voting against Jesus” – when Handel wrote operas in London he was a huge success, until he stayed in the business long enough to see the fickle audience opinion turn. His response was to write oratorios instead – which are basically like operas but religious. It was as if he dared them to continue throwing tomatoes by putting Jesus on stage. It worked, of course and his cash flow was restored.

  5. Jack Moynihan says:

    Thanks, once again Dick for providing this insightful report. The students’ reaction to the meeting was both interesting and refreshing. With regard to how the manger discussion took up so much time, I agree that this is just another example of how some councilors manipulate issues as ” wedges that … drive people in Lowell apart on issues that are at best tangential to the mission of local government.” In addition, when issues (like this) are framed in a way that suggests that opposition represents an affront to existing values – it can be difficult for some dissenting councilors to say anything – although some do just quietly vote in opposition in some circumstances. Ex-councilor Murphy was an exception in that way – but I suspect that these situations strongly influenced his decision not to run again. Thanks for your earnest efforts for the city Dick.

  6. Renee Aste says:

    I’m going to throw something ‘out there’.

    The predicament we’re in, is that government can’t have it both ways. It can’t promote ‘culture’ then say what is or isn’t culture. For many our culture is inherently tied to our religious belief, including and protecting the lack of religious beliefs as well. All or nothing, if ‘all’ then that includes religious expression on public property. That’s a personal view, not legal analysis. I realize the situation, that the city solicitor has on current case .

    If we are going to have diversity, we can’t water it down either.

    Lowell prides itself on diversity and culture, we are in a bit different situation then some other towns or cities who deal with this issue.

  7. Emily Rogers says:

    Thanks for coming to our class Mr. Howe! It as great to hear your thoughts :) Really enjoyed having you as a guest speaker!

  8. Jeff Welch says:

    I served as a Plymouth County Commissioner from 2005-2009, and on our board was a guy who owned a religious goods store. At a local Saint Patrick’s Day roast, shortly after I assumed the chairmanship from him, I joked that the Commissioners were now opening our meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance instead of the Our Father and Nicene Creed.

    It never occurred to me that what I thought of as a joke had actually been happening in reality a few dozen miles a way.

  9. Ken G says:

    Just a thought, if the manger is not allowed, should not the
    religious signs promoting Buddhism on Middlesex street and
    at Clemente park be taken down?

  10. Michael Straw says:

    Dick, As a Pastafarian and member of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I will ask that next year on city hall plaza a display be erected including the image of the Spaghetti Monster and a colander.

  11. daughter of doom says:

    I was going to complain about the prayer until you mentioned they used to say the ‘our father’. I am not a million years old but I do vote in every local, state and national election. I was really hoping for a turnover of city councillors this time around. Instead Lowell went backwards. Downhill on “Christian St” backwards. Its not a pun, there is a steep hill off 1st St named Christian St.

  12. Renee Aste says:

    The discussion has been reduced to ‘flying spaghetti monsters’?

    I understand you may not have faith or religion. I get that.

    I have no problem with atheist partaking holiday customs, just as our Buddhist brethren let us part take in their festivals usually on public property.

    Like I said if it comes down to this, the city should do what is needed to be have nativity sold/given to a private group.

    I don’t have time for this.

    As I read in a Catholic blog about the statute for Satan in OK, the government sponsers a lot of crappy art.

    Fine just hand over (yes, for amount of what the display is worth) the Nativity, to someone who can display and preserve it.

  13. Corey says:

    …and there is the Pastafarianism argument. It’s a Reductio ad absurdum to show what happens if the floodgates are opened to allow any religious display. Of course, even declaring Pastafarianism a fake religion is easily used as a proxy argument to show a disrespect and intolerance for religions different than one’s own.

    That said, it is correct: If the manger is allowed, then the Buddhists can display religious symbols (Is there really a Buddha at Clemente Park? I’ve never noticed – but there is a Buddha on the Cambodia Town signs), but it opens up much wider than that to anybody. Now, instead of having one government-sponsored faith, we have two. If a Buddha is allowed and the manger is not, that is also wrong.

    The line of questions then continues further: where is the line between Religion and Culture? You can’t say Buddha is culturally Cambodian and not say a Manger isn’t culturally Catholic. I was never comfortable with the government spending and support for “Cambodia Town” for that reason. What about Laotians? Nigerians? Portuguesetown? What about people who aren’t Cambodian in the Lower Highlands and Cambodians who live elsewhere? How much money was put up by the CMAA, etc and how much by the city? What about the fact that the banners are on the street posts either way which are public property?

    If there is an issue with that, then what about Boston’s Chinatown? Is that big gate on City property? Who owns it?

    Is this a question of democracy where only people with enough votes to win public money and space for their culture get it? Seems wrong.

    As others have said, Christmas, even the way we celebrate it in Lowell, is really only so secular and the city spends a fortune on it.

    This rapidly gets very, very ugly and I clearly have more questions than answers. All I know is that I’d be much, much in support of the manger if Rita et al had shown a little humility and fairness in her arguments instead of making this about her feeling oppressed by minorities.

  14. Joe says:

    I get the feeling that a few of the councilors almost look forward to losing the lawsuit. It’s good politics(in their mind). Rita thinks she is defending us. The question is who is us? Is she defending Lowell or is she defending Christianity? One of the councilors proposed we expand the display and make it more inclusive. Wouldn’t that make just about everyone happy?

  15. Thomas Mandile says:

    People who choose not to vote do not exist, politically, and are not entitled to representation. Acting on behalf of the 11,500 who actually care what happens is responsible statesmanship.

  16. Mr. Lynne says:

    “… not entitled to representation.”

    Strictly speaking this isn’t true. Granted that stuff gets done on the basis of who shows up, but that’s not the same as how rights and responsibilities of representatives are defined. My citizenship is what defines the fact that government officials represent me, not my voting status.

  17. Gail says:

    I was initially amused when the Mayor started to read that the city manger be moved to JFK plaza, but that quickly changed. It would be one thing if a private group had approached the city to do something, but to advocate that city funds be used is beyond the pale. As both a Lowellian and a Christian, I found the discussion extremely disturbing, insulting and embarrassing. In regards to the prayer, I don’t think that the councilors are paying attention to what they are praying. They ask for the wisdom to do what is best for the city, and introduce a motion that is anything but wise. They ask for the city to be unified; not only does C. Mercier introduce a divisive motion, but does so in a bellicose tone and manner. I assume the timing was political [new council], but it is odd, that this motion was introduced on the day after Epiphany. I think that it is much better for the Nativity scene to be at St. Anne’s, a lovely setting outside of an historic church, where there is pedestrian traffic, and use some lighted winter decorations at JFK Plaza that could be a part of Winter Fest, as well.

  18. Greg Page says:

    @Jack Moynihan:

    Good comment about Mayor Murphy.

    If you ask people what they want for in a pol, they will inevitably say things like, “Independent-minded,” “not afraid to buck the trend to do what’s right,” and “will stand up for the little guy just as fast — or faster — than for the big guy.”

    Sounds like Patrick Murphy.