FFRF asks California city council to drop opening prayers

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is urging the Huntington Beach City Council to completely end the practice of religious invocations before its meetings.

A concerned Huntington Beach resident has reported to the state/church watchdog concerns with the Huntington Beach City Council’s prayer practices and conveyed to it the controversy between the City Council and the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, which has traditionally been in charge of deciding who leads invocations before meetings. Mayor Tony Strickland has recently moved to change the way prayers are done due to concerns of “political soapboxing opportunities” after being advised by City Council members such as councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark.

Van Der Mark has had a history of controversial remarks herself, such as now-removed anti-Semitic and racist comments on YouTube, as well as a playlist entitled “Holocaust hoax?” Due to these comments, as well as evidence of her participation in events promoted and run by white supremacy groups, residents of the Huntington Beach community called for Van Der Mark’s removal from the City Council. No action was taken, however, and Van Der Mark remains an active member of the council.

The mayoral move would have the city create a list of “certified” religious leaders approved to deliver opening invocations, but the interfaith council is concerned that the list would be used to offer the opening prayer to one faith over others. In the two meetings since the proposal, Christian police and fire chaplains have performed an opening prayer. Mayor Strickland supported the proposal, stating that it will prevent prayers from being given by “hate groups.”

“The issues and concerns that the council is dealing with regarding its opening prayer practice perfectly illustrate that government prayer is an unnecessary entanglement of religion with our secular government and why the practice should be dropped altogether,” FFRF Staff Attorney Chris Line writes in an open letter to Strickland. “We write to request that the council cease opening its meetings with prayer, or at the very least, implement a moment of silence that would allow all residents to reflect in their own way.”

Prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive. City Council members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way and do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time. Any prayers offered exclude the 26 percent of adult residents of Orange County who are nonreligious. Citizens, including Huntington Beach’s nonreligious citizens, may be compelled to come before it on important civic matters and to participate in important decisions affecting their livelihoods, property, children and quality of life. It is coercive and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to participate in a public meeting and be required to either make a public showing of their nonbelief (by not rising and praying) or else display obeisance to a religious sentiment they do not believe in, but which their city council members clearly do.

That’s why FFRF is urging the Huntington Beach City Council to concentrate on civic matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual by ending its tradition of hosting prayers before its meetings.

“It is the Huntington Beach City Council’s duty to model respect for the First Amendment and the rights of conscience of all community members, not just Christians,” says FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “City Council members are free to pray on their own time and dime.”

You can read the entire FFRF letter here.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is a national nonprofit organization with more than 40,000 members and several chapters across the country, including nearly 5,000 members and a chapter in California. Its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.


Freedom From Religion Foundation

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