The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., sent a letter Aug. 5 to Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and City Council President Anna Verna to stop the regular practice of opening council meetings with Christian prayers.
The prayers unconstitutionally reference Christianity and invoke Jesus Christ, said Foundation attorney Rebecca Kratz. “Upon reviewing the prayers from January to June 2009, it is clear that these prayers are rarely, if ever, non-denominational or non-sectarian,” Kratz said.
The Foundation filed the complaint on behalf of its 13,500 members nationwide, its 462 Pennsylvania members and on behalf of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia, an FFRF chapter.
The prayers “do not fall into the narrow exception of constitutionally permissible government-sponsored prayer laid out by the Supreme Court,” Kratz said. “Even if the Council had an established history of opening its meetings with prayer, the practice still violates the Establishment Clause because of its continual references to Christ.”
The Foundation letter cites federal court rulings that ban government-sponsored prayers that are sectarian, denominational, invoke a particular faith or deity, or are directed at citizens.
Transcripts of invocations at council meetings show use of phrases like “In the name of Jesus, we pray,” “In the name of your son Jesus Christ, who came to earth and died for the sins of each of us and for the whole world,” “For we ask this all in that name that is above every name, Jesus the Christ, we pray.” The June 18 invocation ends with: “We ask this in the name of our resurrected and soon-coming king, Jesus the Christ, the anointed of God. And as always, Lord, I thank you for listening. And all God's people said amen.”
Kratz said such prayers “impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the Council is endorsing not only religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths.”
An additional concern is that schoolchildren who may be present “cannot possibly be able to discern that the Philadelphia City Council does not endorse the religious messages contained in the prayers.”
The prayers that opened the council meetings were from representatives of the following congregations: Chosen 300 Ministries, Calvary Baptist Church, North Penn Baptist Church, Real Life Ministry, Zion Baptist Church, Greater Bethel Temple, Gospel Temple Baptist Church, Church of God of Prophecy, Bryant Baptist Church, Victory Community Church, First African American Baptist Church, Catalyst for Change Church and Garden of Prayer Church.
The Foundation letter asks that the council stop the practice immediately so that the board is in compliance with the law: “We respectfully request a written reply addressing the steps you are taking to remedy this constitutional violation.”
Read the transcripts of city council prayer violations.
Read the letter to Mayor Nutter and the Philadelphia City Council."