ACLU of San Diego Challenges Sectarian Prayers at City Council Meetings on Behalf of Resident

May 5, 2004 12:00 am

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SAN DIEGO – Acting on behalf of a local resident, the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego & Imperial Counties today sent a letter to the Mayor of La Mesa and City Council officials, asking them to end the practice of opening Council meetings with sectarian prayers that make specific references to Christianity, and to adopt a policy ensuring that all future invocations will be non-sectarian.

“A person’s religious beliefs should not be a barrier to participating in government activities. However, when the Council sends the clear message that Christianity is the preferred religion in La Mesa, it also sends the message that non-believers and people of other faiths are unwelcome outsiders,” said Watson Branch, a staff attorney with the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties.

“Non-Christians are presented with the predicament of sitting in uncomfortable silence during the invocation, participating in a religious exercise they do not believe in, or leaving the Council chambers,”” he added. “”No one should have to make such a choice in order to attend a meeting of elected officials.”

The letter was written on behalf of a La Mesa resident who wishes to remain anonymous in order to protect his privacy. La Mesa has a population of about 55,000 and is located directly east of San Diego.

The ACLU said in the letter that the La Mesa City Council practice of allowing sectarian prayers violates the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against government entanglement with religion.

For example, La Mesa Councilwoman Ruth Sterling has repeatedly used her turn to give the invocation prior to Council meetings to invoke the name of Jesus Christ and use other prayer language unique to Christianity. She has expressed her intention to continue this sectarian practice despite court rulings, which prohibit this practice, and in defiance of the advice of La Mesa’s City Attorney. Other La Mesa Council members have also insisted on acting in defiance of this clear constitutional command.

The U.S. Supreme Court banned such sectarian invocations prior to legislative meetings in 1989 in the case of Allegheny v. ACLU. That ruling has been repeatedly reiterated, most recently in the California Court of Appeal in Rubin v. City of Burbank. Because of historic traditions, there is a narrow exception to the First Amendment prohibition against official religious observance for legislative bodies; however, the Allegheny case made it very clear that such legislative prayers must be nonsectarian, the ACLU explained.

To assure that no official preference for any one particular sect or creed is expressed in the opening prayers at the La Mesa City Council meetings, the ACLU’s letter requests that the city immediately cease the practice of allowing these prayers and institute a policy that guarantees that no such prayers are offered at future meetings. In addition, the ACLU requests that the council members who have acted in violation of the constitution and in defiance of the advice of the city attorney immediately cease their illegal conduct.

If the city or its council members fail to take these measures and allow the sectarian invocations to continue, the ACLU said it will take appropriate steps to remedy the situation, which could include taking the matter to court.

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