Christian Prayers at City Council Meetings Unconstitutional, Watchdog Charges

Christian Prayers Challenged in Turlock, Calif., and North Richland Hills, Texas

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., recently sent letters of complaint to officials in two cities, Turlock, Calif., and North Richland Hills, Texas, over the illegal practice of routinely opening city council meetings with Christian prayer.

Area residents and taxpayers alerted the Foundation, which has nearly 14,000 members across the country, to the constitutional violation.

Freedom From Religion Foundation’s Staff Attorney, Rebecca Kratz, sent a 4-page letter to each mayor noting that "the prayerful practice at Council meetings runs afoul of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it impermissibly advances Christianity." She also argued in the letters that such a practice "alienates any non-Christians and nonbelievers" by turning them into "political outsiders of their own community and government."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision, that government prayers must be "nonsectarian, non-denominational, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and . . . addressed to the body of legislators present and no one else," Kratz noted.

A similar May 21 Foundation complaint in Lodi, Calif., a neighbor of Turlock, has caused great controversy and generated substantial news coverage.

Kratz wrote to Turlock’s Mayor John Lazar: "To avoid the divisiveness these prayers cause within the community—as evidenced in neighboring Tracy and Lodi—the solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers before legislative meetings."

Kratz wrote Lazar that the prayers at Turlock’s Council meetings are "rarely, if ever, non-denominational. Each of the prayers reviewed end 'in Jesus' name.'" (See transcript of recent Turlock prayers).

Kratz noted that in Rubin v. City of Burbank, a California appellate court ruled that "an invocation offered to Jesus Christ violated the Establishment Clause because it conveyed the message that Christianity was being advanced over other religions," which renders the practice illegal in the state of California.

In her Texas complaint over North Richland Hills prayers, Kratz noted that "of 37 prayers reviewed, 33 of them ended with specific references to Jesus Christ. Seven prayers ended with 'in Jesus' name.'" (See transcript of recent North Richland Hills prayers).

In North Richland Hills, Council members deliver the prayers, such as a typical prayer by Mayor Pro Tem Scott Turnage, who stated: "Lord . . . place your hand of wisdom on our shoulder for the decisions we make here tonight . . . And we ask this in your son’s name, Amen."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in the Turner v. Fredericksburg decision for the U.S. 4th Circuit Court of Appeals (a decision let stand this spring by the Supreme Court) that: "[t]he restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to the people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith."

Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation co-president, in an additional letter to the Turlock City Council, wrote: "Prayers are unnecessary, inappropriate, and divisive. Calling upon Council members and citizens to rise and pray (even silently) is coercive, embarrassing and beyond the scope of secular city government."

The Foundation has called upon both city councils to immediately end the illegal and unconstitutional prayers at government meetings.

NOTE: Foundation members who become aware of similar violations in their local governments are encouraged to fully document the violations by taping or watching webcast meetings, transcribing sectarian references (to Jesus and New Testament) and compiling information and religious affiliation of recent officiants. The Foundation needs this information before pursuing the violations. It is very helpful if local complainants are willing to speak out against prayer violations at government meetings. More information on the state of the law is available at FFRF's Legal FAQ.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.
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