Has a corner been turned in raising public awareness about the impropriety of opening public proceedings with Christian prayer, or any sort of prayer?
Certainly there has been in Lodi, Calif., the birthplace of A&W root beer and the self-proclaimed Zinfandel wine capital of the world. The city of about 70,000 people is 90 minutes east of San Francisco and just north of Stockton.
In May, the Freedom From Religion Foundation lodged a formal complaint on behalf of a Lodi member, who asked for anonymity, with Mayor Larry Hansen that the city was breaking the law, and ignoring its own policy, by opening city council meetings with prayers that were specifically Christian.
Video of the meetings is posted online. City policy says prayers must be “nonsectarian and nondenominational.” (The dead giveaway they weren’t: Jesus and/or Christ were invoked in 39 of 55 prayers.) The Foundation pointed out that the Supreme Court has permitted government prayer only under narrow circumstances, limiting them to nondenominational, for instance. The Foundation not only noted that the Lodi City Council was violating Supreme Court guidelines, but asked that the city drop prayer altogether.
In the days when June Cleaver vacuumed in high heels, or even decades later, such prayers may have passed muster. But nontheists and non-Christians are gaining in numbers in a more diverse United States. The Freedom From Religion Foundation has been very active in pressing the issue across the nation. (See sidebar on page 8, photos from Lodi on page 19 and editorials supporting FFRF on page 8.)
As the issue heated up, David Diskin of Lodi formed an ad hoc group called Lodi United to press for a solution to accommodate freethinkers and non-Christians. He wondered why the council should, in essence, be marketing Christianity. “We really just want people to be comfortable when they attend city council meetings, and to have those meetings be as secular as possible,” Diskin told KCRA-TV.
The Lodi News-Sentinel editorialized on May 30 that while the complaint was “an unnecessary distraction,” the council should get with the times. “What’s so hard about making sure someone from the Buddhist church, the Sikh or Jewish temples, or the mosque offers the invocation now and again?”
Maybe the opinion writer(s) didn’t recall the anger in July 2007 when Sen. Harry Reid invited a Hindu to open the U.S. Senate’s day with this prayer: “We meditate on the transcendental glory of the deity supreme, who is inside the heart of the Earth, inside the life of the sky and inside the soul of the heaven. May He stimulate and illuminate our minds.”
Three members of a Christian group present tried to shout down the prayer and yelled, “This is an abomination . . . no Lord but Jesus Christ” while police led them off. The group said in a statement later: “The Senate was opened with a Hindu prayer placing the false god of Hinduism on a level playing field with the one true god, Jesus Christ.”
Some in Lodi aren’t too hep on the “different path, same goal” philosophy of government-sponsored prayer either. A reader, Stella, commented at the News-Sentinel’s online site: “Prayer at a city council meeting demeans the meaning of prayer for all religious people. ‘Dear God, please give me the strength to deny this zoning variance’? Council members, if you really feel that you need to invoke your maker in order to do your job, do it in your car on your way to the meeting.”
Though the council isn’t scheduled to vote on the issue until Sept. 30, people on both sides have come in droves to council meetings when prayer isn’t even on the agenda. Media from all over California have shown interest.
In early June, council member Bob Johnson called Lodi “a Christian community, regardless of whether people like it or not.” FFRF member Ralph Matthews said prayer in public meetings is “ridiculous and divisive.”
“The problem is that Lodi is a very diverse population, with many diverse backgrounds and even nonbelievers, and they are made to be outsiders in their own community when Jesus is invoked,” Foundation staff attorney Rebecca Kratz told the News-Sentinel.
Christians are under fire these days for grabbing the whole religious hog, so to speak, tend to fall back on the historical argument. A Lodi pastor contended that “Christian prayers [in public] have always been there. To ignore history is a bit naive.” It’s like the argument that it’s certainly fine to put “In God We Trust” on U.S. money and public buildings because some of the Europeans, even most, who colonized America were Christian.
After the initial FFRF complaint, the city of Lodi contacted religious leaders to ask them to tone down the explicit Christian references in invocations. A new Foundation analysis showed that while explicit references were gone, at times they were replaced by “code” like “Our dear Heavenly Father” and “we pray all of these things in your name.” The Foundation sent another letter on July 23 to ask that the city not let its vigilance flag.
Rev. Bill Cummins, Bear Creek Community Church pastor, made his feelings clear about the restriction, saying “you might as well pray to a Coke bottle . . .”
“Nobody’s banning Jesus, and nobody’s banning prayer. But we are asking that government be neutral,” Foundation Co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor told the Stockton Record. The Foundation earlier had contacted members within about 100 miles of Lodi to alert them to a counterpicket Aug. 5 and asking them to contact the mayor. The Foundation was also in touch with Atheists and Other Freethinkers, a Sacramento group.
When the council met Aug. 5, about 200 people gathered to support the Christian prayers. A group called The Pray in Jesus Name Project sponsored the larger rally. (One of its prominent spokespersons is Gordon Klingenschmitt, who in April called on members to pray for the deaths of Rev. Barry Lynn and Mikey Weinstein.)
Eddie Lopez, 13, came with a bible and told the News-Sentinel that he was there “just to support Jesus, just for him to know I was here to support him.”
Steve Weiner of Lodi disgreed. “We have Muslims, Sikhs, atheists and people of various faiths, and they can feel excluded and intimidated at council meetings if there is a prayer to one God, Jesus.”
Diskins would prefer to have prayers off the council’s weekly agenda. He suggested to the Stockton Record the alternative of “a moment of silence, allowing everybody to pray to their own personal god or to no god at all.”
Donald Blount, Stockton Record managing editor, opened his Aug. 10 op-ed by asking if praying or reciting the Pledge of Allegiance is necessary before a public meeting, then answered his own question: “The answer of course, is no. It seems the only thing necessary to get the meeting under way is to call it to order.”
The city expects a large turnout for the Sept. 30 council meeting, which has been moved to a 900-seat city-owned facility to accommodate a crowd.
The venue change may allow Christian prayer supporters to pack the house, but Gaylor thinks the Foundation is on the right side of the issue. She and Foundation Co-president Dan Barker want to thank all those who are supporting separation of church and state in Lodi.