No Christ Banning Jesus from City Council Meetings and State Government

Prayers "in the name of Jesus" before city council meetings are now being challenged throughout the land. And it doesn't seem to matter to separationists whether or not the prayer is initiated by the city. Just the utterance of Christian blessings at meetings is objectionable. At a November 1999 city council meeting in Burbank, California, the minister ended his invocation prayer with

"in the name of Jesus Christ." Someone in attendance was offended and filed a suit in the Superior Court of Los Angeles to ban the practice, the court complied, and the appellate court affirmed the ban in September 2002. As Burbank mayor David Laurell noted, this didn't involve the utterance of the prayer by the city council itself. The mayor also said the issue wasn't as much about separation of church and state as about freedom of expression. Laurell reportedly "cringes at the thought" of city councils being forced to censor what people are allowed and not allowed to say during prayers. "I'm all for invocations that are all-inclusive,' said Laurell, "but I don't want me or anybody else to tell people that it has to be that way."

Following the ruling, city councils throughout Orange County, which has thirty-four cities, most of which have invocations at their meetings, began to reevaluate their practice. In Buena Park and La Palma, city officials asked clergy not to mention a particular deity in their prayers-as if there were any chance of Lord Krishna being invoked. In Fullerton, the city attorney directed that invocations could begin with "Our Heavenly Father," but could not end with references to "Jesus" Debbie Borden, a resident of Huntington Beach, devised an innovative solution-to use the three minutes she was allotted as a member of the public to give the invocation. She described it as "the perfect solution" because a private individual, not the city, was initiating the prayer. But Borden shouldn't be so sure her solution will fly. The California courts deemed there was sufficient "state" involvement to bar such a practice when the city called for the invocation by pastors, even though the city did not tell the pastors what to say. The courts very well might find that the three minutes allotted to each member of the public, during which time a citizen could choose to give a "Jesus" invocation, constitute an official endorsement of the practice. These days it takes increasingly less direct action by public officials to trigger Establishment Clause violations.

Here again, the free exercise and free expression rights of those seeking to utter the prayers in the name of Jesus are entirely suppressed, and there's evidence that the court's ruling is having a chilling effect on religious expression in the area. Pastor Ron Sukut of Cornerstone Community Church in San Clemente decided not to give the invocation at a council meeting when he was told he could not mention Jesus. "I think we have a constitutional right to choose which God we're praying to, said Sukut. "Taking that right away is what's unconstitutional." Mission Viejo mayor John Paul Ledesma said the court's ruling seems to contradict freedom of expression and is "ridiculous."

The "Jesus prayer" controversy has arisen at the state level as well. A member of the Maryland senate recently objected to three such pre-meeting prayers. Senator Sharon M. Grosfeld said, "There are numerous faiths represented in the General Assembly, and in recognition of that ... the prayers that are said ... should be as neutral in terms of their reference to a particular god as they can be." And the Colorado State Board of Education, after an objection, discontinued its practice of pre-meeting public prayers where Jesus was mentioned.

But the real winner was the state of Utah, where seventy-one-year old Tom Snyder, a man whom some have described as an atheist, so sued the city council of Murray, a suburb of Salt Lake City, for denying him permission to "pray" at their meetings. In his "prayer" to "Our Mother, who art in heaven," Snyder asked for deliverance "from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people ... by the actions of misguided, weak, and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness." The state court dismissed the suit in 1999, but Snyder appealed all the way to the Utah Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court. The Utah high court cited its 1993 decision upholding Salt Lake City's right to have prayers at official events provided that they didn't discriminate against any faiths. The court held that denying Snyder his right to pray violated his rights under the Utah constitution, including its Establishment Clause. The opportunity to pray, stated the court, must be equally accessible to all who choose to participate.

In all likelihood what Snyder was really after was not the right to pray-which he doesn't seem to believe in-but rather the suppression of voluntary Christian prayer at city council meetings. And he may get his way. Following the 1993 Utah Supreme Court decision outlawing "discriminatory" prayer at Salt Lake City's official events, the city decided to end public prayer, to avoid dealing with the problems that might arise.

In the next chapter we'll see how the separationists have gone beyond trying to purge the government and its property of Christian influences. They are also determined to bar Christians and those who share their values from public office. And as for those Christians who slip through into positions of power, the secularists insist that they keep their Christian views segregated from their official duties. They not only want to enforce a strict prohibition on the state endorsing Christianity; they also want to preclude Christians from influencing the course of government. In many cases they are applying de facto litmus tests against Christians who would serve in government.

chapter seven

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