After a concerned resident alerted the Freedom From Religion Foundation about Christian prayers used to open Tehachapi (Calif.) City Council meetings, the FFRF sent a letter of complaint to the city.
The Foundation has 2,183 California members and nearly 14,000 nationwide. Tehachapi is about 40 miles southeast of Bakersfield.
A review of the invocations (transcribed as part of the letter linked above) on the city's Web site showed that of the seven prayers given this year by Christian clergy, five ended "In Jesus' name," while two ended in a similar variation. According to the Foundation's complainant, the invocation practice at council meetings didn't start until Mayor Linda Vernon took office in March 2009.
The practice violates the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and California law, said Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney. "First and foremost, the prayers do not fall into the narrow exception of constitutionally permissible government-sponsored prayer laid out by the Supreme Court."
The only exception the court allowed was for nonsectarian, nondenominational prayer. Even if the council had a long, established history of opening meetings with prayer, the "continual references to Christ" make the practice illegal, Kratz said. So far in 2009, FFRF has contacted governmental boards in at least 16 U.S. locations about violations of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Kratz's letter to Tehachapi cites a California appellate court ruling that said "an invocation offered to Jesus Christ violated the Establishment Clause because it conveyed the message that Christianity was being advanced over other religions."
On June 15, Rev. Darrell Foster, Seventh Day Adventist pastor, closed his invocation before the Tehachapi council meeting with, "We ask all these things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, who loved us so that he died for each one of us. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
The Foundation's letter said the council can't permit any prayers that contain references to an explicit deity. "By hosting sectarian prayers, which show the council's preference for Christianity, the council is inappropriately entangling itself with religion."
A moment of silence instead of a prayer "would better respect the rights of conscience of all citizens," the letter said. The Foundation and its membership oppose any government prayer. "But at minimum we want the Supreme Court's ruling against sectarian prayer to be enforced," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, Foundation Co-President."