The debate over Christian prayers at local government meetings, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court last week, landed a little closer to home for residents of Pismo Beach when an atheist group sued the city over its own city council sectarian invocations.
Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed suit (pdf) to halt the Christian prayers routinely delivered at the start of Pismo Beach city council meetings. The foundation found that all but one of the 126 prayers offered between January 1, 2008, and October 15, 2013, were “addressed to a Christian god” and all but three were from Christian clergy. Pentecostal clergy delivered 112 of the prayers.
The lawsuit claims that the city chaplain appointed by Pismo Beach, defendant Paul Jones, Christianizes U.S. history, “exhorts” residents to elect “righteous leaders” and encourages city leaders to “govern according to his god’s Bible.”
The lawsuit makes many of the same claims debated in Washington last Wednesday. But in that case, Town of Greece vs. Galloway, defenders of the suburban Rochester, New York, town had a powerful ally, the Obama administration. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a brief with the court that took a position further to the right than it did when the issue was raised under the Reagan administration.
The Greece case stemmed from a 1999 decision by the town board to substitute prayers for a moment of silence before meetings and then, for the next eight years, invited Christian ministers to lead them. Everyone attending the meetings was asked to stand. Two residents, a Jew and an atheist, asked the board to halt the prayers and won a lawsuit in federal court when the town refused. They also won on appeal (pdf).
Plaintiff Susan Galloway told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, “We are trying to protect religion. Whenever government gets involved in religion, it gets corrupted. I'm standing up for religion.” A Supreme Court ruling is expected next June.
The Pismo Beach lawsuit seeks to have the prayers and appointment of a city chaplain declared unconstitutional. The plaintiffs also want a permanent injunction to halt the prayers in the San Luis Obispo County town of 8,000. The prayers almost always quote the Christian Bible and often refer to it as divinely inspired holy scripture.
They also invoke history, politics and official city business. In one 2009 prayer, the city chaplain said: “It was President George Washington who reminded us that morality and faith are the pillars of our republic. But it is evident that these pillars are being eroded in our secular and permissive society. Too long, we have neglected Your Word and ignored your laws. We have tried to solve our problems without reference to You. Your word is so clear, and is so simple.”
The city claims the prayers are non-sectarian, are inoffensive to non-Christians and misunderstood by those who are complaining about them. Perhaps they need to listen more closely to the prayers like the one that opened the board meeting on May 5, 2009. “We ask that you will cause every citizen to perform their civic duty and vote this season. Cause us to elect leaders who will stand up for the clear standards that are expressed in the Bible, the Holy Writings of God.”
Those are words that a Muslim Kenyan socialist might find off putting, but “every citizen” in this country certainly recognizes the eternal wisdom being preached. Or not. The courts will decide.