Prayer debate continues as council prepares to vote
September 26, 2009
Maggie Creamer — Lodi News-Sentinel
After months of debate, rallies and even national attention, the Lodi City Council will tackle on Wednesday the issue of whether to continue prayers before council meetings.
The council has dedicated an entire special meeting to the issue. The 6:30 p.m. meeting was moved to Hutchins Street Square to accommodate what is expected to be a large crowd.
The council is having the meeting because of a letter it received in May from the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation threatening to sue if the council did not enforce its own policy limiting prayers to “non-sectarian and non-denominational.” The letter specifically mentioned 39 references to Jesus in 55 prayers the group watched online.
Lodi is not the first California city to be challenged on the issue of prayers before meetings. Tehachapi, Turlock and Tracy also received letters from the group asking them to modify the cities prayer policies.
On Monday, five councilmembers in Tehachapi voted unanimously to not put limits on what religious leaders say during prayers.
Linda Vernon started the prayers in the city, which is east of Bakersfield, when she became mayor in January. She decided to start the religious expression after seeing it done in other cities and at the state and federal level.
“It adds a whole respectful decorum to the meeting itself,” Vernon said.
The city will continue with secular prayers, Vernon said, because it is a freedom of speech issue.
“It’s also a deeply personal issue because people of faith want to seek the guidance and wisdom of a higher being,” she said.
She believes the city is following what is required by law, and said she hopes the group will not pursue legal action.
“I don’t want to increase any additional level of expenses for my city, but it’s a basic human right we have,” Vernon said.
On Sept. 16, Tracy decided not to change its official policy that allows speakers to say what they want during prayers, according to an article in the Tracy Press.
On Tuesday, the Turlock City Council unanimously approved a policy it received from the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian-based organization, that still allows religious leaders to say what they want during the invocation, City Manager Roy Wasden said.
About a dozen residents showed up to voice their opinions, Wasden said, and all but two or three were supportive.
What will happen in Lodi?
In Lodi, the council could possibly decide on a policy Wednesday after hearing feedback from the public.
The city is expecting a large crowd — the August meeting attracted 400 people who gathered for a prayer meeting near Carnegie Forum, and a couple dozen joined together for a counter rally.
Lodi United, a group against prayers at council meetings, will hold another rally Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. until the meeting starts at 6:30 p.m. at Hutchins Street Square, said group founder David Diskin.
“We are hoping that the outcome will be that the city sees this as an opportunity to support tolerance and unity, and do away with a public prayer or make it a moment of silence,” Diskin said.
Diskin said his group has grown from a grassroots organization of mainly non-believers to a group with people from many religions and denominations.
He has met with leaders of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation, rabbis from Stockton and leaders from the Lodi Mosque, who have been “extremely supportive of what we are doing,” Diskin said.
The newly formed group Citizens for Uncensored Prayer is planning to make comments at the meeting, but no rally is planned for beforehand, founder Ken Owen said. Owen also leads the group Christian Community Concerns, which previously spoke out against gambling.
The coalition of local organizations, pastors, attorneys and citizens would like to see the council continue allowing free speech, Owen said.
When the council makes its decision, he would like the members to consider if the final decision honors God, upholds the Constitution, evens out the playing field for everyone, treats everyone fair and equal, and doesn’t limit freedom of speech.
“The final decision that the council makes cannot be made out of concern of offending someone,” Owen said. “It has to be in the best interest of the council and all the citizens of the city.”
The national group The Pray In Jesus Name Project led the rally in August, but its leader, Chaplain Gordon Klingenschmitt, said he is not planning another rally on Wednesday.
While the Colorado resident cannot attend the meeting because he will be taking exams for his theology doctorate, he sent out 900 faxes to local churches encouraging them to go.
Klingenschmitt says his organization is raising money to pay for $7,000 in expenses from the August rally and another $10,000 to contribute to any attorney fees the city could be required to pay if it went to court and lost.
His Web site says the group is at $4,500, but he said that number is outdated. He would not say how much the group has raised.
He also did not have a list of expenses for the August rally, but said the money went to pay for the sound system, insurance and advertising the rally. He said his staff volunteered its time to plan the event and were not paid.
“Our non-profit is running on a shoe string. It’s not profitable; I’m personally losing money on this fight,” he said.
During the August rally, many of Lodi’s local clergy did not attend. Owen said his group has not been as vocal in public, but instead has been working with the council members and City Attorney Steve Schwabauer.
Klingenschmitt raised awareness about the issue, Owen said, but in the process, he isolated some of the local clergy and the councilmembers.
“We do not want to vilify the city council. But it seems like that was (the group’s) intent, because they didn’t know that the city council wasn’t the villain,” Owen said. “The Freedom From Religion Foundation is the one pushing the envelope.”
The foundation could not be reached for further comment Friday afternoon.