Group threatens to display on billboards how council members vote on invocations
September 29, 2009
Maggie Creamer — Lodi News-Sentinel
Council members might soon see their names on billboards under the words “Against Jesus” and “For Jesus” depending on what the council decides Wednesday night.
The council received a letter from Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, the founder of the Colorado-based national group The Pray In Jesus Name Project, saying he will purchase billboards on Interstate 5 and Highway 99 for one year if the council approves a policy that gets rid of the prayer or forbids religious leaders from saying “Jesus.”
“If you vote the wrong way, or silence prayers or leave in place the current policy that suddenly enforces censorship of Jesus’ name from prayers (as never before), you should be aware of our plan … ” Klingenschmitt wrote in the letter that the city clerk’s office received Sept. 22.
But some council members are taking exception to Klingenschmitt’s approach. When deciding what is best for the community, Councilman Bob Johnson said he will not take into consideration what he described as Klingenschmitt’s attempts at blackmail.
“I take strong exception to your attempt to influence my vote on invocations through the use of blackmail. Your attempt at petty thuggery will not be a part of my thought process,” Johnson wrote in an e-mail to Klingenscmitt.
The council will consider whether to change its prayer policy at a special meeting 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at Hutchins Street Square. The issue came into the forefront after the city received a letter in May from the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom of Religion Foundation threatening a lawsuit if the city did not start enforcing its own policy requiring invocations to be “non-sectarian and non-denominational.”
The money to purchase the billboards will come from the $10,000 in donations Klingenschmitt has pledged to provide the city help in court if Lodi is sued because it continues to allow Jesus’ name to be said during prayers, he said.
Mayor Larry Hansen described the idea of using billboards as a “veiled threat.”
“First of all, this doesn’t influence me to any degree,” Hansen said. “I liken this to e-mails I receive that say if you don’t vote against Wal-Mart, I will not vote for you again. I will never, ever, ever vote based upon whether people are going to vote me in or out of office.”
Hansen said he is not impressed by how Klingenschmitt is handling the situation.
Councilman Phil Katzakian dismissed the letter and said he is focusing on what will happen on Wednesday.
Councilwoman Susan Hitchcock said Klingenschmitt is free to spend his money as he pleases, but she could think of better ways he could be helping others, like by donating to charity.
“On one hand, we have people wanting to sue us. Now we have people that are going to put billboards up,” she said.
Hitchcock said the council has to weigh many issues when making a decision and she will be comfortable with what she decides in the end.
“I don’t care if (my vote) is on a billboard or announced in a newspaper or on national TV,” she said.
Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce said she had not yet read the letter from Klingenschmitt and had no comment.
Klingenschmitt said he did not mean to offend the council members, but instead wanted to inform them about his plans.
“If they are embarrassed about the way they intend to vote, then I can see how they would fear the publicity. If they vote against Jesus, against free speech, against the Constitution and against 85 percent of the public, I could see where they would want that to be kept secret,” he said.
Klingenscmitt said he has raised $7,000 to cover expenses from organizing an Aug. 5 rally in front of Carnegie Forum.
He did not have a list of line item expenses for the rally, but he said the money went to pay for the sound system, insurance and advertising.
He also has raised $4,000 toward his goal of $10,000 to help with any possible city legal expenses or to pay for billboards. Whatever he doesn’t raise, he will pay out of his own pocket, he said.