Invocation Imbroglio: Calif. City Should Drop Crusade For Sectarian Prayers

Sectarian prayers before government meetings are a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Furthermore, they have the effect of making some residents feel like second-class citizens

Two weeks ago, I wrote about R. Rex Parris, the mayor of Lancaster, Calif. Parris found himself in a bit of a hot spot when, during a speech to religious leaders, he asserted, “We’re growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn called on Parris to apologize. Parris seemed reluctant at first, but to his credit has now admitted his remarks were insensitive.

The Los Angeles Daily News reported that Parris has “issued a broad apology” and “called for ‘interfaith dialogue.’” Added the newspaper, “He also said he wants people of all faiths to have ‘a vibrant role in the community.’”

It’s a good start. Here are two more steps the mayor should take: First, he should make it clear that all citizens should be active in the community, whether they are religious or non-religious. He should welcome all people of goodwill and encourage them to work to make Lancaster a better place.

Secondly, the mayor should publicly oppose a measure that will appear on the municipal ballot in April that would allow ministers to recite sectarian prayers before city council meetings.

Measure I asks voters if the city council should “continue its invocation policy in randomly selecting local clergy of different faiths to deliver the invocation without restricting the content based on their beliefs, including references to Jesus Christ.”

No, the city council should not. Such sectarian prayers are a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Furthermore, they have the effect of making some residents feel like second-class citizens.

Several federal courts have ruled against the use of sectarian prayers before government meetings. Lancaster City Attorney David McEwen told the Daily News he believes recent court precedent is on the city’s side – but I don’t know what rulings he is referring to. The precedent in California is clearly on the side of groups like Americans United.

The newspaper reported that 24 of the 27 invocations given in the past year were delivered by representatives of Christian groups. The city is treading on very thin constitutional ice here. In a recent case from Forsyth County, N.C., a federal court struck down prayers before the county commission, noting that 26 of the 33 invocations given from May 29, 2007, until Dec. 15, 2008, contained at least one reference to Jesus, Jesus Christ, Christ, Savior or the Trinity.

There is a better way to handle this issue: As I told the Daily News, many communities have moved to a moment of silence before meetings. This allows attendees to pray or not as dictated by conscience.

Mayor Parris and other Lancaster officials should take heed and give up on the ballot initiative push. It makes a lot more sense than squandering time and taxpayer money on a court battle over sectarian prayers the community is almost certain to lose.