Christian Prayers to Open City Council Meetings Illegal, Watchdog Charges

Christian Prayers Challenged in Chesapeake, Va.,
Independence, Mo., & Lodi, Calif.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national state/church watchdog based in Madison, Wis., recently sent strong letters of complaint over the illegal practice of routinely opening city council meetings with prayer. Letters went out to officials in three cities: Mayor Alan P. Krasnoff of Chesapeake, Va., Mayor Don Reimal of Independence, Mo., and Mayor Larry D. Hansen, of Lodi, Calif.

The complaints were made on behalf of area residents and taxpayers, as well as the Foundation’s 14,000 members across the country.

Rebecca Kratz, Foundation staff attorney, sent a detailed 4-page letter to each mayor, noting that “the prayers being offered do not fall into the narrow exception of constitutionally permissible government-sponsored prayer laid out by the Supreme Court” and turn nonChristians into “political outsiders.”

In the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that to be permissible, government prayers must be “nonsectarian, non-denominational, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and . . . addressed to the body of legislators present and no one else.”

Kratz wrote: “The prayers currently given during Council meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the Council is endorsing not only religion over non-religion, but also Christianity over other faiths.”

The Foundation’s specific complaint to Lodi on May 21 has received substantial news coverage.

Lodi Mayor Hansen told the Lodi News-Sentinel (June 1, 2009): “It would be very easy to say, ‘You know, we are going to fight this all the way,’ but they are citing the U.S. Supreme court, so I don’t think we would have any opportunity to overcome that.” Minutes from a 2006 council meeting reveal that Hansen had publicly admitted the council prayers were probably violating court precedent.

Kratz wrote Hansen that a review of prayers from 2007-2009 shows that “these prayers are rarely, if ever, non-denominational: “Please note that in thirty-nine of the invocations given since 2007 the prayers invoked Jesus Christ.” 

Kratz cited a March 2 prayer in her letter to the mayor of Independence, Mo., by Pastor Fred Larson, who concluded his prayer with, “In Christ’s name.”

In her Chesapeake complaint, Kratz noted that “Jesus Christ” was invoked in every prayer during the months of March, April and May 2009, even though the council’s own rules require a “nonsectarian invocation”

Typical of Chesapeake prayers was one by Pastor James Edward III, of New Rose of Sharon Missionary Baptist Church, which ended: “And so we thank you for that blessing and all these blessings we ask in the name of the Father, the Son, and the blessed Holy Spirit. And the people of God will say, Amen.”

The Chesapeake complainant’s school-aged son was required to watch city council meetings for a social studies project, and was subjected to Christian proselytizing as a result, raising “grave concerns,” Kratz added.

The Fourth Circuit, which encompasses Virginia, has firmly weighed in against sectarian government prayer. Kratz cited the Wynne decision (4th Cir. 2004), and Turner v. Fredericksburg(4th Cir. 2008), both directly holding that the Establishment Clause was violated when a town council opened sessions with references to Jesus Christ.

This year, the Supreme Court let stand the Turner decision written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor (substituting on the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals), in which O’Connor noted:

“[T]he restriction that prayers be nonsectarian in nature is designed to make the prayers accessible to the people who come from a variety of backgrounds, not to exclude or disparage a particular faith.”

Foundation co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor called government prayer “inappropriate, and divisive.” Said Gaylor: “Divine guidance is hardly necessary when deciding on such terrestrial matters as variances, building permits, sidewalk repair and sewers! Citizens of all religions or no religion are compelled to come before the city council on civic, secular matters and should not be subjected to a religious show or test.”

Foundation co-president Dan Barker, author of Losing Faith in Faith: From Preacher to Atheist and Godless, pointed out: “Christians who know their bible are familiar with the biblical injunction of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, who condemned public prayer as hypocritical and said: ‘Enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret’ (Matt. 6:5-13).”

The Foundation has called upon all three city councils to immediately comply with constitutional dictates.

NOTE: Foundation members who become aware of similar violations in their local governments are encouraged to fully document the violations by taping or watching webcast meetings, transcribing sectarian references (to Jesus and New Testament) and compiling information and religious affiliation of recent officiants. The Foundation needs this information before pursuing the violations. It is very helpful if local complainants are willing to speak out against prayer violations at government meetings.  

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., is a national association of freethinkers (atheists, agnostics) that has been working since 1978 to keep church and state separate.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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