Lodi may be headed for prayer lawsuit
October 2, 2009
Maggie Creamer — Lodi News-Sentinel
The day after a highly anticipated decision by the Lodi City Council on prayer, the leader of a national group says it will likely sue Lodi or another city in California over their practices.
“We’ll see how it pans out and probably will have to sue because there is widespread disrespect for the law in the state of California,” said Annie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Her comments come after the council decided to broaden its prayer policy to allow religious leaders to offer uncensored prayers, so Christian leaders will be able to say “Jesus Christ.”
The council made some other changes and additions to the prayer policy:
— Invocations will be given before the meeting is called to order. Previously, the prayers happened after the meeting had been called to order and before the Pledge of Allegiance.
— The council will actively encourage all religious traditions within Lodi to give invocations. The city expanded this to include religious leaders who have to travel outside of Lodi to attend a place of worship like members of the Sikh or Jewish religions.
— Non-religious groups will have the opportunity to give a Call to Civic Responsibility.
— The council will continue to not allow invocations that seek to convert or demean a particular religious belief or lack thereof.
— The prayer will remain on the agenda, but there will also be a disclaimer saying the invocation is an acknowledgment of diverse religious traditions and is not an endorsement of any religion or belief.
The previous policy restricted prayer to “non-sectarian and nondenominational,” but many religious leaders still said “Jesus Christ.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which is based in Madison, Wis., filed a letter to the city asking it enforce its own policy and eliminate references to Jesus.
Before filing a suit on the new policy, the foundation will watch the invocations under the new policy, Gaylor said.
She said the foundation will monitor the other cities in California the group has challenged — Tracy, Turlock and Tehachapi — to see what would be the best test case.
She is disappointed the council gave in to religious pressure, and hopes someday there will be a consequence for government leaders who push religion.
“There are no penalties for councilmembers,” Gaylor said. “Public officials should have to answer for this instead of gambling with taxpayers’ dollars.”
But Century Assembly Pastor Dale Edwards said he is confident that allowing uncensored prayer will include all faiths while not restricting freedom of speech.
“I think that it allowed uncensored prayer for those of all faiths to be able to participate. For those of no faith, there was an allowance for them as well, and puts everyone on an equal playing field,” Edwards said.
Edwards said he understands that the city might have to go to court over the decision, but also said there are many issues people will file lawsuits on. He believe it is courageous that the council took a stand.
“There is no guarantee that we are going to live in this country and someone is not going to be offended. … We’ve lost civil liberties already. This is as far as we have to go,” he said.
The city attorney’s office will now draft a policy allowing uncensored prayer, and the council will vote on it at a future meeting.
The policy the council decided on Wednesday night will allow leaders to make religious references as long as they are not proselytizing.
Gaylor said opening the prayers up to anyone will be interesting because the council might become disenchanted with its own policy. She said the council might consider changing its policy after someone comes in and says the council can only be ethical if it doesn’t believe in a God or says Allah should be worshipped as the only prophet.
Lodi United founder David Diskin said he wishes the city would have eliminated prayers before the meeting and gone to a moment of silence, but he will respect the council’s decision. He said he would be honored to give a speech before the council meeting even though he is an atheist.
“We respect it, but we would have wished they would have opted for an option that eliminates the prayer, but instead lets them pray silently,” Diskin said.
His group will still be watching the invocations to see if the city is opening it up to a variety of faiths, and to make sure they do not cross legal parameters.
After hearing the council will continue prayer, Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt said he was celebrating. Klingenschmitt founded The Pray in Jesus Name Project, which organized a prayer rally in August and has been encouraging Lodi to allow uncensored prayer.
“It’s a testament to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” he said. “God has answered our prayers. There were people who did a lot of things, but all the credit goes to Jesus.”
He sent an e-mail to media outlets on Thursday saying it was “remarkable” timing that Mayor Larry Hansen voted for uncensored prayer after saying previously he supported non-denominational prayer. He attributes this switch in part to his press release saying he would post council votes on prayer on billboards on Highway 99 and Interstate 5.
“But Mayor Hansen, up for re-election next year, suddenly sees the light … ” Klingenschmitt wrote in reference to the billboards.
But Hansen vehemently denies the billboard threat had anything to do with his decision. He said he has been researching the issue and met with many members of the local clergy to come up with the best solution.