Lodi Letdown: Calif. City Votes To Continue Official Prayers

As the face of American religion changes, it's bound to have implications for public policy.

I wrote earlier this week about the increasing religious diversity of America and the rise of "nones" – people who say they belong to no specific religious group.

As the face of American religion changes, it's bound to have implications for public policy. All units of government will need to find ways to include everyone, regardless of what they believe or don't believe about God.

City officials in Lodi, Calif., recently faced an early test on this issue. Unfortunately, they flunked it.

Like a lot of communities around the country, Lodi City Council often opens its meetings with a prayer. Many pastors would pray "in Jesus' name," despite a council policy that called for "non-denominational and non-sectarian" prayer.

In May, the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Wisconsin warned the council to stop using sectarian prayers and raised the possibility of a lawsuit.

The council announced it would take some time to study the issue. The matter quickly became a magnet for controversy. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a third-tier Religious Right blowhard based in Colorado, began agitating over the issue and even promised to erect billboards attacking council members who voted for a moment of silence or non-sectarian prayer.

Community residents who support church-state separation pulled together a much more reasonable response. City resident David Diskin formed Lodi United, a group of believers and non-believers who joined forces to support separation of church and state.

Lodi United proposed a sensible compromise: The council should adopt a moment of silence before its meetings. "We believe that all Lodi residents should feel welcome at city council meetings," reads the group's Web site. "You can likely sympathize with those who feel uncomfortable when a prayer of a different denomination is given. Sectarian prayer can divide a community and make minorities feel unwanted."

Lodi United organized at the local level, educated the population, held rallies and even started a Facebook page. It was an impressive example of community-based activism, but sadly, it was not enough. The council met last night and voted 5-0 to allow religious leaders to use sectarian prayer.

Council members said that the new policy, which is yet to be drafted, will encourage many different types of religious leaders to recite prayers and will also include non-religious people, who will be given an opportunity to present a "Call to Civic Responsibility."

My guess is that most of the prayers will still be Christian, and on those few occasions when they are not, I'm sure fundamentalists will raise a fuss. The new proposal only muddies the water and ensures that Lodi will continue squabbling over this issue. The matter might even end up in court.

That's a shame. Lodi United provided a better path, and city officials should have taken it. In doing so, the community could have become a model for other cities and towns grappling with how best to ensure tolerance and fair play in a nation of many faiths and philosophical perspectives.