Foundation Takes on Prayer

The Freedom From Religion Found­ation has upped its efforts to get government-sponsored prayer out of public meetings. 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. Action alerts were also sent to Foundation members to contact the relevant officials. All the FFRF complaints have received substantial coverage in local media. Here’s a roundup of the latest:

Toledo, Ohio

The Foundation’s complaint about illegal prayer at city council proceedings caused the city to change its official policy so that Toledo’s a little less holy now.

In an Aug. 25 letter to Mayor Carleton “Carty” Finkbeiner and City Council President Joe McNamara, Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, urged discontinuation of the practice of praying before meetings, and especially the use of Christian prayers. “It is clear that these prayers, are rarely, if ever, nondenominational or nonsectarian.”

An FFRF audio review of the prayers from January through August 4, 2009, showed that of the 11 prayers, over half ended with specific references to Jesus. Two examples: “In the name of Jesus we pray. Amen.” “We ask this in your son’s name. Amen.”

About a week later, McNamara announced that spiritual leaders and clergy giving the invocations at future meetings would be told that prayers must be nonsectarian and nondenominational.

Adam Loukx, acting Toledo law director, sent a letter to the council that said only nonsectarian government prayers are approved by the Supreme Court and that people giving the invocations should be reminded to keep them nondenominational.

Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor said the Foundation is against government-sponsored prayer of any sort. “Would these pastors like city officials to fill their pulpits to update congregations on things like new requirements for zoning variances?”

Memphis, Tenn.

FFRF sent a letter of complaint to the Memphis City Council for opening public meetings with Christian prayers and sanctioning a “Chaplain of the Day” program. The Foundation’s letter also questions a city Web page with religious statements and the practice of giving a gift or “goody” bag to clergy who pray.

The chaplain program started in 1966, according to the Memphis city clerk. It includes a certificate written like a city proclamation, which is read at a presentation to the clergy officiant. The Foundation has submitted an open-records request for information on what the gift bags contain and their cost to the public.

“The council should not be in the business of regularly recognizing local clergy members through official proclamation and presenting them with gifts,” said Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney. “This action violates the most basic and fundamental principles of Establishment Clause jurisprudence.”

Tehachapi, Calif.

FFRF sent a letter of complaint Sept. 1 to the city about opening its council meetings with Christian prayer. A review of the invocations 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. 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 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.”

Columbia, S.C.

FFRF sent a letter to the city’s mayor and council members urging them to keep meetings secular so as to not exclude its nonreligious constituents. With no discussion beforehand, the council had unanimously approved a motion to open its meetings with a prayer. Council member Tameika Isaac Devine, a possible mayoral candidate, made the proposal. Devine said she was surprised to learn when she was elected that the council didn’t pray before meetings. “And I totally respect the whole separation of church and state,” she said. “I think starting with an invocation gives you that importance and sets that tone.”

The Foundation’s letter told Isaac Devine that honoring the Constitution sets that tone.

North Richland Hills, Texas & Turlock, Calif.

The Foundation sent letters of complaint to officials in Turlock and North Richland Hills over the illegal practice of routinely opening city council meetings with Christian prayer.

Staff Attorney Rebecca Kratz sent a four-page letter to each mayor noting that “the prayerful practice at Council meetings runs afoul of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it impermissibly advances Christianity.” She also argued in the letters that such a practice “alienates any non-Christians and nonbelievers” by turning them into “political outsiders of their own community and government.”

A similar May 21 Foundation complaint in Lodi, Calif., a neighbor of Turlock, has caused great controversy and generated substantial news coverage.

Kratz wrote to Turlock’s Mayor John Lazar: “To avoid the divisiveness these prayers cause within the community—as evidenced in neighboring Tracy and Lodi—the solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers before legislative meetings.”

In her Texas complaint over North Richland Hills prayers, Kratz noted that “of 37 prayers reviewed, 33 of them ended with specific references to Jesus Christ. Seven prayers ended with ‘in Jesus’ name.’ “

La Crosse, Wis.

Foundation efforts that started in February to convince the city council in La Crosse to stop opening meetings with prayer received a setback. The council voted 10-3, with four absentions, on Aug. 13 to adopt most of the conservative Alliance Defense Fund’s prayer policy, which means the prayers will continue.

According to Foundation member Hank Zumach of nearby Stoddard, Wis., the council’s resolution made the prayer part of the official proceedings by having it said after the meeting was called to order.
A motion by council member Dick Swantz to replace clergy-led prayer with “a moment of silent reflection” was defeated Sept. 10 by a vote of 10-7.

Swantz called it “a blown opportunity” for the city “to celebrate its growing diversity.”

He noted, however, that getting seven votes for silent reflection instead of prayer is a step forward.

Falmouth, Mass.

The Foundation filed several public records requests related to placement of a prayer station at a public beach. The town “should not be in the business of providing space at a public beach to churches for worshipful practices such as prayer,” said Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney.

Town selectmen approved the prayer station on Aug. 3 by a 4-0 vote. The station was manned four hours a day each day by volunteers from four area churches, and the $20 per parking space fee was waived because churches are nonprofit organizations.

Townsfolk were in an uproar over the misuse of premium beach parking space.

Freedom From Religion Foundation