Consciousness-raising continued in Lodi, Calif., as freethought activists rallied against government-sponsored prayer at city council meetings.
The council voted 5-0 on Sept. 30 to repeal the city’s current policy requiring prayers to be “nonsectarian and nondenominational.” A new policy allowing “uncensored” invocations will be developed by the city attorney.
“I personally regret the [past] decision this council made to have prayers that were nondenominational and nonsectarian,” Mayor Larry Hansen told the Stockton Record. Both sides agree the policy was never enforced.
“The more I researched this, the more I believe that God is part of the foundation of this country. It’s on our currency, it's in our pledge, it's our motto,” the mayor added.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, whose objections launched the debate, will wait to see what that policy is and how it is enacted is before taking legal action, said Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
What is certain is that the issue has brought more atheists and agnostics out in the open to stand up for the Constitution. One example is Lodi resident and Foundation member Karen Buchanan, who describes herself as “very much an introvert.”
Buchanan, who works in insurance claims, started going to council meetings to keep up on local issues and was appalled to hear prayers open the meetings. She alerted and started working with the Foundation. “It has bothered me that the implication has been that FFRF ‘picked on’ Lodi, and Annie Laurie has taken a lot of heat on account of this perception.”
The night the council voted, with about 700 people there, Buchanan decided to speak out and gave a public statement as well as interviews with The New York Times and a TV station.
She worked behind the scenes (“my comfort zone”) before the Sept. 30 meeting. She listened to two years’ worth of meeting recordings and read council minutes and documents.
“I had several conversations with city personnel about where we could stage our protest and the limitations on the other side as well,” Buchanan said. “I was very concerned that the counterprotest be peaceful and safe because there had been allegations from the other side that we ‘may commit acts of violence.’ ”
She talked with local pastors and attended an open meeting of Christian Community Concerns to learn their perspectives and plans.
At the five-hour council meeting, the speakers pro and con were evenly divided.
What gives Buchanan hope is this: “Having connections with like-minded people and seeing we can stand together. I was just amazed and buoyed up to see people show up at our rally.
“I started out feeling very alone and now I’ve found a whole bunch of wonderful, thoughtful, interesting friends. Also, seeing one issue bring people together who want to work on other projects. We now have started a group of freethinkers/atheists in the Lodi/ Stockton area to do community service projects. Our first one hopefully will be for National Secular Service Day on October 18.”
Buchanan’s advice for believers: “Government neutrality is critical for true freedom of conscience.” For freethinkers it’s this: “Get educated—you, your family, your community. I agree with Justice Souter—civics education is in a sad state.”
In an editorial, Donald Blount, Stockton Record managing editor, said he’s surprised that the council didn’t order enforcement of its existing policy calling for nonsectarian prayer or vote to eliminate prayer altogether.
“I disagree with the council’s decision. It seems that in trying to be inclusionary of all, the council will end up in the wrong moral place. . . . Some Christians argue that it infringes on their rights if they can’t give thanks to their savior during prayer. What happened to being inclusive of others?”
Gaylor, who was also quoted in The New York Times’ coverage on Lodi, said the Foundation objects to any government prayer. But at minimum, government bodies must comply with Supreme Court guidelines requiring “censorship” of sectarian remarks.