I saw the above article a couple of days ago in our local paper, The Antelope Valley Press. I was going to make a few comments about how Mayor Parris is so concerned about his own religious views not being allowed as official policy, but sure seems to be eager enough to trample all over Lancaster citizens religious rights. I was going to comment about the list of “approved” churches in the Antelope Valley being the only ones to participate. But reporter, Bob Wilson beat me to it.
Dave Dionne, president of the Antelope Valley Freethinkers posted this article from yesterday on the AVF meetup site. Thanks Dave.
City Officials Admit Violating Prayer Policy
By: Bob Wilson
LOS ANGELES – Lancaster officials on Tuesday acknowledged in federal court that the city twice violated its policy governing the selection of persons scheduled to offer invocations at City Council meetings.
I just knew this was going to happen.
They also acknowledged the city’s prayer policy was authored by Vice Mayor Ron Smith, not City Attorney David McEwen.
The acknowledgments were part of testimony elicited by Roger Jon Diamond, an attorney representing two women who have sued Lancaster over its policy on invocational prayers.
It appears the city is not too interested in what it’s lawyers think. Actually, Mayor Paris has stated publicly that he knows all about church-state separation issues and he is sure he will prevail in court. Never mind that even though he is a lawyer, he is an ambulance chaser and not a constitutional lawyer. I guess the Dunning-Kruger effect happens in the law profession as well.
The city’s policy, adopted in August 2009, asserts intent to provide equal opportunity for representatives of all faiths to say prayers calling for divine guidance for the council at the beginning of its public meetings.
Really, all faiths are treated equally? The evidence and testimony shows that this is not true.
A decision on whether U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer will issue an injunction barring the city from allowing such prayers or, in the alternative, will issue a declaration stating at least one of those prayers was unconstitutional is pending.
The policy was the City Council’s response to an April 2009 demand by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California that Lancaster officials put a stop to prayers being routinely offered in the name of Jesus Christ.
The lawsuit’s plaintiffs, Shelley Rubin of Los Angeles and Maureen Feller of Lancaster, are seeking an injunction requiring the city to end its practice of allowing ministers and other church representatives from naming specific deities such as Jesus Christ when offering prayers at the beginning of government meetings.
If they fail to obtain an injunction, the plaintiffs are asking Judge Fischer to at least issue a declaratory judgment stating that an April 2010 invocation given by Bishop Henry Hearns was in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the California constitution.
In his prayer, Hearns closed with, “In the precious, holy and righteous and matchless name of Jesus, I pray this prayer. Amen and amen.”
Why does the city council need to have public prayers before their meeting? Don’t theyget enough in their places of worship? I have always thought that public piety is a show of insecurity. If you need to be reminded constantly of what you believe in, then your beliefs must be very fragile to begin with.
The bishop’s recitation of the prayer was displayed on a screen in Fischer’s courtroom along with other invocations offered at Lancaster meetings.
Diamond told Fischer the city’s prayer policy is a smokescreen meant to obscure its efforts to promulgate Christianity.
“Basically, the city is pushing an agenda of aligning itself with Christianity,” Diamond said, pointing to a January 2010 address where Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris told a group of Christian ministers, “We’re growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that.”
In a previous post, I covered the Mayor’s mingling of his religion with city business. He was caught using public money to pay for the meeting with local church leaders. He was caught lying about it, and had to reimburse the city out of his own pocket.
Even if the city is not taking a pro-Christian stance intentionally, it is failing to adhere to its own policy concerning how and when people are permitted to offer such prayers, he said.
Under questioning by Diamond, City Clerk Geri Bryan acknowledged that her written declaration that the city’s policy had been unerringly followed was incorrect.
Instead of selecting a person at random to give the first invocation after city voters approved a referendum in support of the council’s policy, Bryan said she invited Hearns to lead the prayer at the suggestion of Paul Chappell, pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church.
Chappell was supposed to give the April 27 invocation but ultimately could not, so Chappell asked that she invite Hearns to give a prayer in his stead, Bryan testified.
Another case of Lancaster Baptist Church running the city council. They get first dibs on the city’s invocation, in direct contrast to the city’s official policy of a random choice of religious leader.
When asked how a Los Angeles-based member of the Sikh religion council came to offer the first invocation after the filing of the lawsuit against the city, Bryan said she was asked by City Manager Mark Bozigian to find a Jew, Muslim or Sikh to offer the prayer.
When asked if that move was contradictory to the city’s prayer policy, Bryan said, “It is.”
She found the Sikh minister through a contact provided by a member of the city’s Planning Commission, she said.
Yeah, when pressed, the city needed to look for “some Jew, Muslim, or Sikh”as a token minority when it became obvious that the invocations were given only by Christians..
When called as a witness, Parris said his use of the word “We” in the phrase “We’re growing a Christian community” was intended to refer to efforts by himself and the ministers present at the January 2010 address and not to efforts by himself and others at City Hall.
Parris also said the comment was made “at a private meeting with the ministerial association that I paid for.”
Supporting the growth of a Christian community “is not an official city position,” Parris said.
I guess it’s not now since the Mayor was caught red handed paying for the meeting with city money and had to pay it back once the truth came out.
The comment was made at a time “when Muslims were threatening one of our councilwomen,” the mayor said.
Muslims threatening the council woman? As I recall, she was posting highly inflammatory comments on Facebook and was slammed back by the Muslim community. I guess she could dish it out but couldn’t take it.
Arguing for the city, attorney Alison Burns said previous federal cases have determined that prayers at the beginning of government meetings are constitutional.
Burns also said that as long as persons giving the prayers neither exploit the opportunity in an attempt to convert others nor disparage the faith or beliefs of others, the city cannot impose prior restraints on the language of those praying.
“The city has and is complying with the policy,” Burns said. “The policy is now being followed to the letter.”
Past errors should not be used as a basis for issuing an injunction against the rule, she said.
Instead, the city should be, at most, directed by the court to follow the rule, Burns said.
“If any (past) invocation did not follow (the city’s) policy, it should not form a future restriction on the city of Lancaster,” she said.
So the city council should not be accountable for not following city policy?
The city can ask those who offer invocations to adhere to its policy, but it cannot retract the words of those who fail to do so, Burns said.
Then perhaps they should have followed official city policy to stay out of trouble. This is what happens when they ignore the city’s attorney.
Diamond said the city’s policy of allowing numerous prayer-givers the chance to possibly offend listeners of different religions was not a defense.
“This is not an isolated slip-up. They have a history of this sort of conduct over a long period of time,” Diamond said. “The practice and custom in Lancaster is to violate the establishment (of religion) clause.”
Diamond asked Fischer to provide the same ruling that was issued in a state-court case he won against the city of Burbank when it was allowing sectarian prayers in the name of Jesus Christ.
Fischer told Diamond she was not bound to follow decisions reached in state courts, including the one against Burbank.
“There is no (previous federal) case exactly on point” that serves as a precedent for the Lancaster lawsuit, “so we are swimming in new waters here,” Diamond told Fischer. “It will be up to the court” to set the precedent, he said.
The judge agreed, noting that a precedent “would make my job easier.”
“I will do the best I can,” she said, noting that she had a prior matter on which to rule before turning her attention to Rubin v. Lancaster.
Hopefully, the judge will throw out Lancaster City council prayers. The city council behaved exactly like I predicted they would act. The whole selecting random religious leaders was a smokescreen and was deliberately ignored, so that the city council’s favorite church, the huge mega church compound Lancaster Baptist, could continue to give the invocation. Lancaster Baptist Church is very active in Lancaster politics and giving the invocation week after week is a reminder to the city council of their political clout in Lancaster.