The Freedom From Religion Foundation has ended all prayer before the city council in Pismo Beach, Calif., with a settlement reached April 15. That victory has become all the sweeter following the Supreme Court’s unfortunate May 5 decision “blessing” sectarian governmental prayer. (See related story, this page.)
FFRF’s victory will hold, since the lawsuit was brought in state court and did not invoke federal law.
Following the filing of the lawsuit, the Pismo Beach City Council, which had dug in its heels after locals complained about its prayer practice, surprised observers by totally capitulating to FFRF requests. The council voted to stop all prayers at official meetings and to abolish a city chaplain position that had anointed a Pentecostal preacher to intone long sermons to begin meetings.
FFRF and Dr. Sari Dworkin, a Pismo Beach resident and FFRF member, sued the city Nov. 1, 2013, in Superior Court in San Luis Obispo, alleging the official prayers and chaplaincy violated the California Constitution.
Before each council meeting, city Chaplain Paul Jones or one of his religious substitutes delivered a Christian prayer. Prayers often included egregious factual mistakes, including manufactured theocratic quotes attributed to America’s founders. Jones’ prayers pressured citizens to live a Christian or biblical lifestyle, to vote for “righteous” leaders and make decisions that “honor” his god.
The city agreed to pay the plaintiffs nominal damages and attorney fees totaling about $47,500 and to end the practice of praying at meetings and abolish the chaplain position. The settlement carries the force of law and will be accompanied by a court order.
“This is a significant victory that FFRF intends to build on,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.
Pismo Beach established an official city chaplaincy in 2005 and appointed Jones to the post. He’s affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, which emphasizes “speaking in tongues.”
Jones delivered 112 of the 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013. All but one of the 126 prayers was addressed to the Christian god.
FFRF warmly thanks local plaintiff Sari Dworkin, litigation attorney Pamela Koslyn and FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, who built the solid case. Seidel transcribed many of the prayers and joked that such work was “cruel and inhumane” for an atheist attorney. Atheists United of San Luis Obispo and its members helped initiate the lawsuit.
FFRF will receive $27,000 for Seidel’s services and plans to recycle the fees to go after other California governmental prayer.