FFRF sues Calif. city for pervasive Christian prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a 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 heard 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 as 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, which has about 2,800 California members, and local FFRF member, Dr. Sari Dworkin, who 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 suit for more than a year. 

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

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 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 were addressed to the Christian god.

In virtually every city prayer, Jones pressured citizens and the council to live a Christian lifestyle, to vote for “righteous” leaders and to make decisions that honor Jones’ particular god. The board meets twice a month.

At least 54 of the prayers contained a “Christianized” view of history. 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.

FFRF thanks Dworkin, attorney Pamela Koslyn for taking the case pro bono, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, AUSLO for its support and AUSLO members for prayer transcription.

Freedom From Religion Foundation