Lodi council votes to keep prayers before meetings
October 2, 2009
Loretta Kalb — The Sacramento Bee
The city of Lodi, one of a handful of small California cities challenged for their invocations during public meetings, on Wednesday night rebuffed efforts to eliminate the prayers.
The council voted unanimously to develop a policy allowing uncensored invocations that avoid favoring any one religion.
The motion by Mayor Larry Hansen declared that the council under the policy would encourage participation from diverse religious representatives and from non-religious groups.
In a nod to the threat of lawsuit, the council members agreed to hold the invocation before the meeting is called to order.
The decision puts Lodi on the same track as the cities of Tracy Turlock and Tehachapi, all of which faced challenges from the Freedom From Religion Foundation over what the group called a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
As of Wednesday night, all four cities had decided to allow invocations and not put limits on what the clergy say.
More than 700 people packed Lodi’s Hutchins Street Square theater, some urging the City Council to allow uncensored prayer during public meetings, others calling for invocations that reflect Christian beliefs.
Still others sought to do away with invocations entirely.
One chaplain suggested that if council members didn’t vote with Jesus, their decision would be advertised on Lodi billboards. Councilman Bob Johnson responded that he would not be intimidated.
It was decision night at the Lodi City Council on an issue that has divided residents. And it marked the climax of months of public angst after the national Freedom From Religion Foundation, warned in May that the council’s invocation policy violates the U.S. Constitution.
Public comment continued for more than three hours before the council took up the issue.
“Clearly, we are a room divided about where to go from this point forward,” Hansen said after dozens of members of the public had spoken.
“I personally regret the decision this council made to have invocations that were non-denominational and non-sectarian,” Hansen said. “I think that has set us up for some for some of the things that have happened from the Freedom From Religion Foundation.”
Councilwoman JoAnne Mounce, called herself a traditionalist. “My opinion…we need to open it up to have prayer for all religions and non-religions,” Mounce said.
There was passion inside and outside the theater.
Inside, Alamo attorney Terry Thompson came to the meeting and said his prayer group has been praying for the Lodi City Council.
“There are many people across the state who are praying for you,” he told the panel. “I would urge you not to go for nonsectarian prayer. To me, nonsectarian prayer is like a banquet without food. You want the Lord’s blessings on your deliberations. That’s the real issue here.”
Susan Robinson came from Modesto to tell the council the opposite.
“This tradition of prayer at government meetings is not an honorable one,” Robinson said. “But you can be honorable tonight. You can be fair … by removing all religion from your government functions. That is the only way you can treat all of the citizens equally and respectfully.”
Outside, about two dozen people rallied in support of having a moment of silence at council meetings instead of prayer. They carried signs such as “Keep religion out of politics” and “Democracy, not theocracy.”
That policy allowed nondenominational prayer. “Our council chose not to enforce it,” Songey-Neff said.
The mayor said he had received nearly 1,500 e-mails on the subject in recent months.
“I understand you have been on the sharp end of many barbs,” Kevin Suess, associate pastor of Vinewood Community Church in Lodi, told the panel. “I simply want to stand before you this evening and apologize. That is not Christian behavior.”
The heat intensified when former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt of the national Pray in Jesus’ Name Project said he was prepared to advertise the final vote on billboards if the council “does not stand up to atheists.”
Councilman Johnson described the approach as stupid.
“What’s stupid about it, as everybody knows well, is we vote in public,” Johnson said. ” … And as far as I am concerned, it’s not working with me.”
Klingenschmitt gave council members a “courtesy” heads-up on his plan. But if council members support Jesus in prayer, he said, his group would provide some $4,000 in funds raised to help any needed legal defense funds.
Klingenschmitt defended his view of the debate as those who support Jesus vs. those who support atheism.
“I advocate for their right to stand up and pray to their god, atheists, Muslims, Jews, Buddhists. Let everyone pray to their own god,” he said. “Jesus is the only illegal word. The people who are complaining only seem to complain about Jesus.”
David Diskin of Lodi United disagreed with Klingenschmitt’s proposal to publicize council members’ votes on billboards. Lodi United represents many religious and non-religious denominations in the city, he said.
“It’s unfortunate if he thinks he can bully the City Council,” Diskin said. “What he’s doing is extremely non-Christlike.”