City councils ban Jesus from prayer

Officials react to a court ruling limiting invocations to the mention of God.
The Orange County Register, Jan. 12, 2003

Orange County city councils are accepting a new reality for the new year – God is welcome at their meetings, but Jesus isn’t.

That’s the result of a California appellate court ruling that the Supreme Court let stand last month. Orange County city councils are now starting to comply with the ruling.

Referring to God in opening prayers is all right, but referring to Jesus or any other specific religious figure promotes a particular religion and is therefore unconstitutional, the court ruled.

This has prompted at least five Orange County cities – San Clemente, Fullerton, Buena Park, Laguna Niguel and La Palma – to put out new or reinforced policies.

“This is indicative of how confused we are, spiritually speaking, about what God is,” said Pastor Ron Sukut of Cornerstone Community Church in San Clemente. He declined to give his invocation at Wednesday’s council meeting after he was told he couldn’t mention Jesus.

“I think we have a constitutional right to choose which God we’re praying to,” Sukut said. “Taking that right away is what’s unconstitutional.”

Irv Rubin, the late leader of the Jewish Defense League, was one of the plaintiffs in the case against the City of Burbank that the appellate court ruled on.

Rubin filed the suit after he heard a minister say “in the name of Jesus Christ,” during an invocation at a council meeting in November 1999.

The Superior Court of Los Angeles County ruled that such sectarian invocations violate the Constitution’s separation of church and state. The appellate court upheld that ruling in September 2002. The Burbank council has not formally decided to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court yet, but Mayor David Laurell said it’s only a matter of time.

“I think we need to take this ruling to the highest court of the land,” Laurell said. “It has already had statewide impact and could have nationwide impact.”

To Laurell, the issue isn’t so much about separation of church and state but about freedom of expression. He cringes at the thought that city councils are forced to tell people what they can and cannot say during prayers.

“I’m all for invocations that are all-inclusive,” Laurell said, “but I don’t want me or anybody else to tell people that it has to be that way.”

Most of Orange County’s 34 cities have invocations at their council meetings. Ten cities don’t: Aliso Viejo, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Laguna Beach, Laguna Woods, Lake Forest, Rancho Santa Margarita, Seal Beach, Stanton and Villa Park.

Buena Park and La Palma have invocations at their meetings. City officials in both cities sat down with clergy after the court ruling and asked them not to mention a particular deity in their prayers.

In Fullerton, the court’s ruling prompted the city attorney to issue directives that invocations could begin with “Our Heavenly Father,” but they couldn’t close with any mention of Jesus Christ, only “amen.”

Lorraine Darienzo, a 54-year-old Catholic real-estate investor in Laguna Niguel, said she agreed with using only generic terms for public institutions such as city councils. She applauded Laguna Niguel’s guidelines, which have always discouraged the use of specific religious figures in invocations.

Using specific names promotes a specific religion, Darienzo said, and a city council meeting is no place for that.

“Not everyone believes in Jesus,” Darienzo said, “but saying ‘God’ is inclusive of every religion, and this nation was founded under God so it should be included in a general way at a meeting.”

In Huntington Beach, Councilwoman Debbie Cook, an attorney, did away with invocations last year when she was mayor. Having city-initiated invocations is unconstitutional, Cook said.

Although she agrees with the court’s ruling, it leads to more complications, Cook said. Cities still choose who gets to give the invocations, and cities decide what they can say.

“This is a direct violation of the First Amendment,” Cook said.

The “slippery slope” of the separation of church and state began when Congress in the early days of the country decided to have invocations, Cook said.

“A bright line between church and state should have been drawn long ago,” Cook said, “but it wasn’t, because we were a nation of believers.

“Now we’re in this uncomfortable position.”

Debbie Borden, a Huntington Beach resident, has come up with what Cook calls “the perfect solution,” because an individual initiates the invocation – not the city. Borden gives an invocation during the three minutes each member of the public has to address the council on any subject.

“It’s very important that the leaders of our city can turn to a higher power,” Borden said. “The separation of church and state is to protect religions from the government, not the other way around.”

In Mission Viejo, former Councilwoman Sherri Butterfield would sometimes end prayers with, “In Christ’s name, amen.”

But Butterfield lost re-election in November, and the city attorney put out a memo advising the council members on the recent court ruling.

Mayor John Paul Ledesma, on the council for four years, chooses not to mention Christ’s name in invocations, but said the court action seemingly contradicts freedom of expression and is “ridiculous.”

“I don’t choose to say ‘Jesus Christ’ when I do the invocation, but I don’t see anything wrong with it,” said Ledesma, adding that he wouldn’t be offended if a council peer chose to ignore the court interpretation. “If they don’t want to abide by it, I wouldn’t think it’s a big deal, really.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday January 13, 2003.
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