ACLU Urges Jacksonville City Council to Revise Religious Practices at Meetings

Affiliate: ACLU of Florida
June 23, 2010 12:00 am

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MIAMI – The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida today sent a letter to Jacksonville Mayor John Peyton and the President of the Jacksonville City Council Richard A. Clark requesting that the City Council cease the practice of opening each council session with sectarian prayer. The practice divides the community along religious lines and violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, according to attorneys for the ACLU.

“Beginning an official city council meeting, or any government session, with a prayer that consistently reflects only one faith tradition impermissibly represents government preference for one particular faith over others and forces those specific religious beliefs on everyone in attendance,” said Glenn Katon, ACLU of Florida Religious Freedom Project Director. “We live in a diverse community, but the system by which Council members offer sectarian prayers to open a meeting of a governmental body is not only unconstitutional, but it divides the community rather than uniting it. You would think that Council members would want to make everyone feel welcome in the community regardless of their religious heritage.”

The ACLU has received several complaints about sectarian prayers at City Council meetings. “I have spoken with many members of the community who are offended that their city government recognizes only one religious faith,” notes Northeast Regional Director Benétta Standly. “Jacksonville is home to people who follow a wide variety of religious faiths, or no faith at all. This is their government too. They should not be made to feel like second-class citizens simply because they do not share the same religious views as the Council member who has been designated Chaplain.”

Download a PDF copy of the letter:

The full text of the letter follows:

June 23, 2010

Mayor John Peyton
117 W. Duval St., Suite 400
Jacksonville, FL 32202

Richard A. Clark
President, Jacksonville City Council
117 West Duval St., Suite 425
Jacksonville, FL 32202

Re: Jacksonville City Council Prayer

Dear Mayor Peyton and Councilman Clark:

As you know, the Jacksonville City Council opens each of its sessions with a sectarian prayer given by Councilman Don Redman, who is the chaplain for the Council during the current fiscal year. All of his prayers at these bi-weekly meetings are Christian-specific. For example, each prayer ends with “In Jesus’ name, I pray.” The two Council Chaplains prior to Councilman Redman also opened each Council meeting with Christian-specific prayers.

This practice violates the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and we ask that you discontinue it immediately. “The clearest command of the Establishment Clause is that one religious denomination cannot be officially preferred over another.” Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228, 244 (1982).

By having a government official who has been designated a chaplain give prayers for the city’s legislative body and limiting those prayers to one religious denomination, the City Council sends an unmistakable message that it prefers one faith tradition (Christianity) over other faiths. The Supreme Court has made clear that “legislative prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief” violate the Establishment Clause. County of Allegheny v. ACLU Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, 492 U.S. 573, 603 (1989) (citing Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983)).

Apart from its unlawfulness, we ask that you consider the divisive and intolerant effect of the Council’s current practice, by which government officials recognize only one faith. In a religiously diverse democracy, citizens of all faiths (or no faith at all) should not be subjected to officially-sponsored religious practices before participating in the affairs of local government.

Accordingly, we ask you to give serious consideration to how the practices of the Jacksonville City Council can, and should, be revised to reflect the diversity of the community. The council’s current practice is contrary to law, divisive within the community it is supposed to be serving, and subjects the city to liability for violation of the law and attorneys’ fees if it is challenged. Please let me know within 30 days whether the City Council will be continuing its current practice described above. If it does implement a change in policy, please consider this a public records request under Florida Statute § 119, et seq. for a copy of the new policy. Thank you for your consideration of this matter.

Sincerely yours,

Glenn M. Katon
Director, Religious Freedom Project

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