Monday, August 03, 2009

[Real World Atheism] Council prayer debate to heat up

Council prayer debate to heat up
Stockton Record
Daniel Thigpen
August 2, 2009
LODI - During a Lodi City Council debate three years ago over whether to mount the words "In God We Trust"
in the council chambers, Councilman Larry Hansen, today the town's
mayor, acknowledged the city might have been be in violation of a court
decision related to pre-meeting prayers.Many
of the pastors who lead elected leaders in prayer before each City
Council meeting for years prayed to Jesus Christ. The city's own
policy, based on a state appeals court decision on public invocations, bars such Christian-specific references.Even with Hansen's admission years ago, city leaders often turned a blind eye as pastors frequently broke the rule.Now, the city can no longer ignore the issue. Lodi has become the latest battleground over the separation of church and state, and the City Council is the target of both Christian and atheist groups throughout the country.On
Wednesday, those warring factions will face off in simultaneous rallies
on the steps of Lodi's Carnegie Forum before the council's next regular
meeting.The City Council is not discussing
its invocation policy at that gathering, opting instead to hold a
special meeting in a larger venue later this year."I'm hearing from people all over the United States," Hansen said. "It clearly is an issue that there's some division on."Earlier this year, the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation,
a national organization that fights to keep religion out of government,
offered the city a stern warning over the prayers and their apparent
violation of court decisions on the separation of church and state.The
prayers' frequent reference of Christ also appeared to often break the
city's own policy on invocations, which are mandated to be
"nonsectarian and nondenominational."After a
local resident complained to the foundation about such prayers, the
group investigated and found pastors had prayed to Christ 39 times in
55 City Council meetings since 2007.Hoping to avoid a lawsuit, city leaders have decided to revisit Lodi's invocation policy.Outraged
Christian groups have been spreading the news for weeks over the
airwaves and Internet. One group has offered to pay Lodi's legal
expenses should it battle in court."Any enforcements of a nonsectarian prayer policy is an infringement on the First Amendment rights on pastors," said James Klingenschmitt, founder of the Pray in Jesus Name Project in Colorado.The
former Navy chaplain is organizing a Wednesday prayer rally and said
he's expecting hundreds from throughout the state and beyond to attend.David
Diskin, a 32-year-old computer trainer and Lodi resident, said he hopes
his own, separate rally will give the town's atheists and agnostics a
voice.Emotions are running high. E-mail
inboxes at City Hall have been inundated with hundreds of impassioned
pleas, many imploring the City Council not to "ban Jesus" from meetings."Nobody's banning Jesus, and nobody's banning prayer. But we are asking that religion be neutral," said Annie Laurie Gaylor,
co-president of the Wisconsin foundation. "What if they started their
meetings saying Allah's name? That would upset a lot of Christians. ...
This is not about barring religion; this is about barring religion in
government."Lodi's existing policy is based on a 2002 appeals court ruling.In a case against Burbank, California's 2nd District Court of Appeal ruled that prayers at city meetings could contain references to God, but mentioning Jesus' name violated the First Amendment clause prohibiting the establishment of state religion.Both
sides of the conflict cite case law to support their positions. But a
definitive legal answer is elusive, said Alan Brownstein, a constitutional law expert at the UC Davis School of Law."I don't think there is an answer that everyone would agree is correct," he said.The
U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that invocations are allowed before
legislative sessions because the practice is rooted in history. But
there is language in the decision that suggests prayer must be
nonsectarian, Brownstein said.There is little legal consensus among lower courts on the issue, he said.That makes defining what is nonsectarian a tough task."What
works for one person doesn't work for somebody else," he said. "The
idea of a nonsectarian prayer can be hard to implement."As
early as September, the council could discuss the city's policy,
choosing whether to enforce it, change it or ditch the prayers
altogether.As for "In God We Trust" - that's hanging on a plaque in the lobby.

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