Baha'i News -- Court ruling could impact local council invocations Monday, September 23, 2002


Court ruling could impact local council invocations

By ARIEL COHN - Staff Writer

A recent court ruling that bans references to specific religions from invocations at government meetings could have implications for Butte County.

The decision by California's 2nd District Court of Appeals does not hold the force of law in Butte County, which is in the 3rd District. But if the case, which concerns the city of Burbank, is appealed to a court with jurisdiction over Butte County and the verdict is upheld, it could become law here.

Burbank's city council may decide this month whether to pursue an appeal to the California Supreme Court.

"We will not only appeal to the California Supreme Court, we'll appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court," Burbank Mayor David Laurell said Friday. "It could have an effect state-wide and for all intents and purposes on a national basis. It will be a precedent."

The lawsuit revolves around a religious invocation that included the phrase, "in the name of Jesus Christ." The invocation was delivered during a Burbank City Council meeting in November 1999.

The Burbank council's practice of having invocations has been around since 1953. Usually a member of the non-denominational Burbank Ministerial Association has given the invocation.

The ministerial association is not exclusively Christian. However, its membership does not include Buddhists, Baha'i, Muslims or Hindus, according to the court's published opinion, written by Judge Kathryn Doi Todd.

The association generated a list of volunteers from among its members, then submitted the list to Burbank's city clerk, who placed a volunteer's name on the council agenda.

The Chico City Council's invocation program is not exactly the same as that of Burbank, but there are some similarities.

Chico City Attorney Dave Frank declined to comment before all appeals are exhausted in the Burbank case.

Since 1994, the Chico City Council has invited people to give religious invocations at the opening of its meetings.

Chico City Clerk Debbie Presson said that city officials have generated a list of local religious groups. Every six months, the city sends out letters to groups on the list, inviting volunteers to sign up to deliver invocations. Presson said letters also are sent to any religious groups listed in the phone book.

The city clerk's office schedules volunteers to give invocations, and adds them to City Council agendas.

Trish Dunlap, Chico's assistant city manager, said, "We try to get a variety of people." She said she hasn't heard of any complaints about invocations at Chico City Council meetings.

Like the Burbank council, the Chico council places no restrictions on the content of invocations, and has heard prayers mentioning Jesus Christ. But it has also had other invocations that might be construed as sectarian, including a recent Buddhist invocation.

The Paradise Town Council, the Gridley City Council and the Butte County Board of Supervisors also hold religious invocations at their meetings.

And the Paradise Unified School District dropped religious invocations from school board meetings in June after the teachers' association demanded the board either stop the practice or use a non-denominational prayer.

The appeals court ruled in the Burbank case that invocations at government meetings that reference a particular religion violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The court did not bar all legislative prayer, but said that any sectarian language must be excised.

The court used the standard of whether it appears to an objective observer that a government body is endorsing a particular religion.

"In light of the fact that the legislative invocation given at the Burbank City Council meeting took place on government property, was authorized by the long-standing policy of the city council, was part of the official agenda of the council meeting and was for the purpose of calling for spiritual assistance in the work of the legislative body ... an objective observer familiar with the City's policy and implementation would likely perceive that the invocation carried the City's seal of approval," Judge Doi Todd wrote.

The government must remain secular to prevent discrimination against citizens on the basis of their religious faiths, according to the court's opinion. Doi Todd cited former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun.

"A secular state ... is not the same as an atheistic or antireligious state," Blackmun wrote. "A secular state establishes neither atheism nor religion as its official creed."

The court also ordered that the Burbank City Council advise anyone conducting an invocation that the prayer cannot reference a particular religion.

"This is putting the City Council into the position where we tell ministers, priests, rabbis and clerics how they can pray," Laurell said.

©Copyright 2002, Choice Enterprise Record

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