Calif. city settles prayer suit with FFRF

Reaching a settlement with the Freedom From Religion Foundation to end FFRF’s lawsuit against the city, the Pismo Beach City Council voted April 15 to stop all prayers before its meetings and to abolish the city chaplain position.

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, the city chaplain, Paul Jones, or one of his religious substitutes, gave a Christian prayer. Prayers often included egregious factual mistakes, including manufactured quotes by 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 to keep all prayer — sectarian or nonsectarian — out of Pismo Beach public meetings,” said FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor.

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to rule on the issue of sectarian prayer in Town of Greece v. Galloway, a New York case. FFRF’s Pismo Beach victory will stand regardless of the high court’s ruling in that case. “We’re entirely satisfied by the outcome,” Gaylor said.

Pismo Beach established an official city chaplaincy in 2005 and appointed Jones, a Pentecostal preacher, 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 were addressed to the Christian god. Many were lengthy and more like sermons than prayers.

FFRF thanks local plaintiff Sari Dworkin, attorney Pamela Koslyn, FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel and Atheists United of San Luis Obispo and its members for helping initiate the lawsuit.  

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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