Just as the U.S. Supreme Court is preparing to tackle prayer at public meetings, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a church-state separatist group, filed a related lawsuit on Nov. 1 in San Luis Obispo Superior Court against the city of Pismo Beach, Calif. This atheist group is using the case to take aim at an unpaid city chaplain and the allegedly sectarian prayers he utters during city council meetings.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation is attempting to prove that these invocations violate the California Constitution as well as the state's civil rights laws. Additionally, the group is seemingly hoping to remove the Rev. Paul Jones from his post. Jones, a Pentecostal pastor, has been Pismo Beach's chaplain since 2005.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation charges that Jones delivered 112 of the 126 prayers during council meetings between Jan. 1, 2008 and Oct. 15, 2013. Aside from one invocation, each of these invocations was purportedly delivered in the name of Christianity, the group charges in a press release surrounding the matter.
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"In virtually every city prayer, Jones pressures citizens and the council to live a Christian lifestyle in accordance with the bible, to vote for 'righteous' leaders and to make decisions that honor Jones’ particular god," the press release proclaimed (read the legal complaint here).
Dr. Sari Dworkin, a self-described "atheist Jew," is a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation who brought her concerns to the organization and said that the Christian nature of the prayers made her feel "offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated."
While the atheist group is charging that egregious First Amendment violations have unfolded, Pismo Beach city attorney David Fleishman sees the situation a bit differently. He told The San Luis Obispo Tribune that cities are allowed to have chaplains so long as the religious leaders do not promote one religion.
"To my recollection, Dr. Jones has been very good about that through the years," said Fleishman.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, though, is arguing that Jones' prayers at the city council's twice monthly meetings have oft-times been overtly Christian in nature and have given the appearance that Pismo Beach endorses and advances Christianity.
"With 20% of the adult population today identifying as nonreligious, at least a fifth of the population is routinely excluded and offended by official prayer conducted by the city," Freedom From Religion co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in the press release. "Non-Christian believers are also excluded when the government prayer is Christian, as it routinely is. It’s time public officials catch up with the changing demographics. Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work."
The Tribune noted that a 2003 policy passed by the council allowed for prayer at public meetings in the city -- with the caveat that invocations are not sectarian in nature.
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