Groups fan prayer dispute
August 6, 2009
Keith Reid — Recordnet.com
Two groups at the opposite ends of a national controversy combined for a crowd of more than 350 outside of Lodi’s City Hall on Wednesday night. Some chanted the name of Jesus, while others marched with signs advocating the separation of church and state.
In common, however, each pleaded with the city of Lodi to uphold their First Amendment rights when it comes to its policy that prayers made by preachers before City Council meetings remain “nonsectarian or nondenominational” and avoid being Christian-specific.
The controversy began earlier this year when the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent Lodi a terse letter saying the City Council had been violating recent court decisions regarding public prayers. The group states that pastors had prayed to Jesus Christ 39 times in 55 council meetings in 2007.
Looking to avoid a lawsuit, the council asked all preachers to avoid praying in the name of Jesus.
Of the 350 people who rallied, roughly 50 asked Lodi leaders to uphold their policy. They marched up and down Pine Street holding signs with phrases such as “Lodi is not a Christian town.”
“If all they did was pray to God, nondenominational, I wouldn’t be here,” said Steve Neimer, 45, of Lodi. “When they use the name of Jesus, they’re crossing the line.”
Similar thoughts have been portrayed by Lodian David Diskin, 32, who organized the rally so area atheists and agnostics could have a voice.
“I want to be a part of the solution,” said Diskin, who prefers a moment of silence to prayers at council meetings. “Whether that means we have a moment of silence, pray in a nonsectarian manner or pray in Jesus’ name. I’m glad the council is being open-minded.”
The majority of people at the rally were on hand in support of the Pray in Jesus Name Project of Colorado, led by former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt.
“I am here to support the pastor’s right and to support the City Council’s right of the First Amendment,” Klingenschmitt said. “People ask me, ‘What about the Muslims?’ I say let them pray to Allah. Let the atheists say ‘Good luck.’ I want 100 percent participation, and everyone can take turns.”
Rosemary Stoebner, 60, stood next to a sign that read, “There is power in the name of Jesus.” She said people who truly believe in Scripture need to have their message heard.
“I understand why the others are here to voice their opinion, but I have to stand up for what I truly believe in. I would be remiss if I didn’t come here to do that,” Stoebner said.
Wednesday’s competing rallies remained mostly civil, with the exception of one confrontation started by a man who said his name is Frank Ernest. He stood toe to toe with 79-year-old Martin Church of Acampo and called the Christian group “blasphemous” and intolerant.
“You can pray in your own time, but you cannot pray in my government,” he hollered over jeers from a large crowd that formed over Church’s shoulder.
“Oh, that guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Church said afterward.