On eve of Supreme Court hearing over city prayer

FFRF sues over prayers, chaplain in Pismo Beach, Calif.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a significant lawsuit Nov. 1 in California state court against the city of Pismo Beach, challenging prayers at city council meetings and the city chaplaincy post.

The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Nov. 6 in a related and closely watched case involving a challenge by two plaintiffs to Christian prayer by the town of Greece, N.Y. The plaintiffs are women, one atheist and one Jewish, who are seeking to invoke protections under the U.S. Constitution.

FFRF’s new lawsuit invokes only the California Constitution’s No Preference and Establishment Clauses, as well a civil rights provision. Regardless of how the Supreme Court decides the Greece case, FFRF’s case can proceed, and could carve out protections against government prayer for all citizens in the country’s most populated state.

Plaintiffs are FFRF, a state/church watchdog representing nearly 20,000 nonreligious members nationwide, including 2,800 in California, and local FFRF member Dr. Sari Dworkin. Dworkin is also a member of Atheists United of San Luis Obispo, which brought the First Amendment violation to FFRF’s attention.

AUSLO and FFRF have been preparing the lawsuit for more than a year. Other members of AUSLO and FFRF are named as supporters of the lawsuit, although they aren’t technically plaintiffs.

“With 20% of the adult population today identifying as nonreligious, at least a fifth of the population is routinely excluded and offended by official prayer conducted by the city,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “Non-Christian believers are also excluded when the government prayer is Christian, as it routinely is. It’s time public officials catch up with the changing demographics. Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work.”

Pismo Beach established an official city chaplaincy in 2005, appointing a Pentecostal preacher, Rev. Paul Jones. He’s affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which emphasizes “speaking in tongues” (although he has refrained from doing that during city council prayers). Jones has delivered 112 of the 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, to Oct. 15, 2013. All but one of the 126 prayers was addressed to the Christian god.

The complaint points out that 122 of 126 prayers concluded “in the name of” the Christian god and that the Christian bible was quoted and cited at least 88 times. In virtually every city prayer, Jones pressures citizens and the council to live a Christian lifestyle in accordance with the bible, to vote for “righteous” leaders and to make decisions that honor Jones’ particular god.

Dworkin, who identifies as “an atheist Jew,” was surprised to encounter Christian prayers by her city council, which “cause[s] her to feel offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated about participating in her own government.”

The council meets twice a month. After the prayer, Jones typically leads the Pledge of Allegiance. The complaint alleges that Jones’ prayers, which often turn into lengthy sermonettes, “advance and proselytize for Christianity.” FFRF said the prayers “further the appearance that our government endorses and supports Christianity, and they disparage non-Christians by claiming that not living in accordance with the Christian god’s rules of law is sinful and wrong.”

In his prayer on Oct. 16, 2012, Jones exhorted “every home and every citizen in Pismo Beach” to be zealous for and live a lifestyle that honors his god. The complaint points out that “Plaintiffs do not derive their morality from any bible, nor do they conflate religion with morality.” Yet Jones has chastised non-Christian citizens during the prayers, saying nonbelievers’ “moral compass of Holy Scriptures has been largely laid aside.” (April 6, 2010, prayer).

At least 54 of the prayers contain a “Christianized” view of history – a version of history that exaggerates or misstates Christianity’s influence. FFRF’s legal complaint documents several egregious examples, including Jones’ claim that:

• The Constitutional Convention approved a prayer motion (there was no such prayer).

• James Madison said our government was based on the Ten Commandments (he did not).

• George Washington claimed it was impossible to govern without the bible (fabricated quote).

• James Madison read from the bible at the Constitutional Convention (untrue).

FFRF seeks a declaration that the prayers violate the California Constitution. The complaint also alleges that the prayers violate California civil rights laws by coercing and forcing citizens to undergo Christian worship if they wish to participate in their government. FFRF is also challenging the establishment of a city chaplaincy.

Attached to the complaint were several exhibits, including transcripts of the 126 most recent prayers.

FFRF thanks its local plaintiff Sari Dworkin for making the lawsuit possible, attorney Pamela Koslyn for taking the case pro bono, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel for his work, AUSLO for their help and support, and members of AUSLO for transcription of many prayers.

FFRF v. City of Pismo Beach, case no. CV-130541 was filed in Superior Court of California, County of San Luis Obispo, and is before Judge Martin J. Tangeman.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., a 501(c)(3) nonprofit educational charity, is the nation's largest association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics), and has been working since 1978 to keep religion and government separate.

FFRF is a non-profit, educational organization. All dues and donations are deductible for income-tax purposes.

FFRF has received a 4 star rating from Charity Navigator

 

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