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Saturday, May 18, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

CA City Council Prayers Didn’t Endorse Jesus

(CN) - Preachers who invoked the name of Jesus during prayers before city council meetings in Lancaster, Calif., did not endorse Christianity for the city, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.

Lancaster had allowed a citizen-led and mostly Christian invocation to open its council meetings for years, but a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union prompted officials to adopt a formal, nonsectarian prayer policy in 2009. Later approved by voters on a nonbinding yes-or-no vote, the policy calls for the random selection of local clergy from all faiths to deliver invocations, but does not restrict the content of the prayers.

In 2010, the city's former mayor, Bishop Henry Hearns, delivered an invocation that included the phrase "Bring our minds to know you and in the precious, holy and righteous and matchless name of Jesus I pray this prayer."

Two attendees of that meeting, Shelley Rubin and Maureen Feller, sued the city a week later under the establishment clause. Their action was quickly removed to federal court where Rubin and Feller sought an injunction to bar the mention of Jesus at city council meetings.

After a bench trial in Los Angeles, the District Court ruled for the city, finding no evidence that Lancaster had meant to proselytize through "legislative prayer" and noting the city's apparently neutral new prayer policy.

The federal appeals court in Pasadena unanimously affirmed on Tuesday after a November hearing that also mentioned Tom Cruise and Scientology.

A three-judge panel noted that, of the 26 prayers given between the day that Lancaster passed its prayer policy and the day that Hearns gave the offending invocation, a full 20 of them were delivered by Christian preachers, all of whom used Jesus' name. That does not necessarily mean, however, that the "city itself has taken steps to affiliate itself with Christianity," according to the ruling/

"The city has instead taken every feasible precaution - short of the extra step (itself fraught with constitutional peril) of requiring volunteers to refrain altogether from referencing sectarian figures - to ensure its own evenhandedness," Judge Diarmuid O'Scannlain wrote for the panel (parentheses in original).

The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently held that "when a neutral government policy or program merely allows or enables private religious acts, those acts do not necessarily bear the state's imprimatur," he added.

The city of Lancaster did not immediately return a request for comment.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Roger Diamond, told Courthouse News Service that he was somewhat surprised by the ruling because he had already won a similar case in 2000 in California state court.

In that case, Irv Rubin, husband of current plaintiff Shelley Rubin, sued the city of Burbank for allowing the same kind of "sectarian prayer" as the one at issue in the present case. The trial court ruled that the inclusion of such prayers in city council meetings violated the establishment clause and it enjoined Burbank from allowing prayers that mentioned Jesus by name. California's Second Appellate District affirmed and the state's high court declined review in 2002.

"This case is definitely not over," Diamond said, vowing to seek a rehearing in the 9th Circuit.

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