Lodi, Calif., is a city of about 62,000 residents between Sacramento and Stockton. I've never been there, but Wikipedia tells me the town is known for its wine production – it's the "Zinfandel Capital of the World." The band Creedence Clearwater Revival once penned a tune called "Stuck in Lodi."
But lately Lodi has been in the news for another reason: a nasty spat over prayers before city council meetings.
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. The group raised the possibility of a lawsuit.
Americans United has been involved in some similar disputes in other parts of the country. We would prefer there be no prayers before government meetings at all. If there must be prayers, they should be non-sectarian.
The issue might have been resolved quietly with the council enforcing its policy, but unfortunately, the Religious Right got wind of what was happening. Gordon James Klingenschmitt, a former Navy chaplain and all-around blowhard, rushed into town and began raising a fuss. He gathered names on an internet petition demanding that Lodi officials allow prayers in Jesus' name. (Klingenschmitt collected 5,185 signatures, but only 2,826 are from California.)
Regular readers of this blog may be familiar with Klingenschmitt. Suffice it to say, AU has had run-ins with him before. Most recently, AU and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation blew the whistle on his tendency to refer to himself as a Navy chaplain and use photos of himself in uniform when he, in fact, is no longer in the military.
Klingenschmitt reacted to that in an odd way: He announced he was praying for the death of AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn! I'll be blunt: The ex-chaplain is a crackpot.
The Lodi News-Sentinel did a great job dissecting Klingenschmitt's background. The newspaper interviewed his former boss in the military, Norm Holcomb, who helpfully explained that many troops did not care for Klingenschmitt's hellfire sermonizing.
"If you are a chaplain in the military, you can't act like you are a preacher at a local church, because you have to take care of everybody, regardless of whether they believe what you do or not," Holcomb said. (Klingenschmitt was bounced out of the military for wearing his uniform to a political rally in defiance of the rules.)
The News-Sentinel reports on competing rallies that will take place in Lodi tomorrow – even though the council is not slated to discuss the prayer issue. Lodi resident David Diskin will lead the side favoring separation of church and state.
Diskin told the newspaper that he's never been much of an activist but saw the need to speak out in this case.
"When something comes up that is important to you, you tend to get on it right away," Diskin said.
Meanwhile, the Sacramento Bee has published an excellent editorial pointing that Lodi is a diverse community and urging the council to drop the sectarian prayers.
"Today, the religious composition of our communities is incredibly diverse," editorialized the Bee. "Practices that may not be objectionable in a homogeneous community can be offensive to many people – religious devotees and nonbelievers alike."
The newspaper added, "Religion thrives where it is treated as a matter of individual, private conscience – not government proselytizing."
The council should follow that advice and make sure Lodi welcomes all residents, no matter what they believe -- or don't believe -- about God.
As for Klingenschmitt, he should go back to wherever he came from. The last thing community residents need is for that kook to get stuck in Lodi.