Bahai News -- High court refuses appeal on invocation ban Tuesday, December 24, 2002


High court refuses appeal on invocation ban

By ARIEL COHN - Staff Writer

A court-imposed ban on some government-sanctioned prayer in California won't have the force of law in Butte County, but it will have an impact.

The court ruling involves a lawsuit over a religious invocation, delivered during a Burbank City Council meeting in November 1999 that included the phrase, "in the name of Jesus Christ."

The California Supreme Court last week refused to review the 2nd District Court of Appeals' decision banning sectarian prayers at government meetings. Sectarian prayers are those that reference elements of a particular religion.

That means that in the 2nd District, which covers Los Angeles, Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, the ban is law.

However, the decision does not hold the force of law in Butte County, which is in the 3rd District. But if someone here mounted a legal challenge to the invocations, the 2nd District's ruling could be influential.

Chico City Attorney Dave Frank said if a local government body that allows sectarian prayers is sued, that government body would have to prove the 2nd District court's reasoning was faulty, or that the facts of the case differ substantially from the Burbank case.

"You can't simply ignore it," Frank said.

But he said the courts in this district are not bound to uphold rulings emanating from other districts.

"It's not unusual to see appellate decisions where a court takes issue with what another district has done," Frank said.

The 2nd District 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.

Burbank Mayor David Laurell said Monday that he intends to ask the Burbank City Council to support an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court when the council reconvenes in January. He said calls of support have come from all over the nation.

"It's amazing how many calls and letters I've gotten from city attorneys, public officials and people throughout the state of California and the country," Laurell said.

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

The ministerial association is not exclusively Christian. However, its membership does not include Buddhists, Baha'i, Muslims or Hindus, according to court documents.

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

Chico officials have said the city has 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. 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.

Like the Burbank Council, the Chico Council places no restrictions on the content of invocations, and most prayers reference Jesus Christ. But the Council also has heard other, non-Christian invocations that might be construed as sectarian.

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

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.

©Copyright 2002, Chico Enterprise Record (CA, USA)

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