ACLU Challenges Sectarian Invocation at San Diego County Board of Supervisors Meetings

June 29, 2000

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

SAN DIEGO -- For the second time in three months, the American Civil Liberties Union has lodged a complaint on behalf of a citizen who objected to the opening of a governmental meeting with a prayer to Jesus Christ, in direct violation of the First Amendment.

"All people should be able to participate in the activities of their government without regard to their religious faith," said ACLU Managing Attorney Jordan Budd. "When government aligns with one particular religion in its invocation, those of other beliefs must either participate against their conscience or sit in uncomfortable and obvious isolation. No one should have to make such a choice in order to attend a meeting of elected officials."

In a letter sent to the San Diego County Board of Supervisors today, the ACLU is asking the Board to change its practice and in the future require all prayer at its meetings be nonsectarian. The ACLU is seeking a response from the County by July 19, 2000. If no response is given by then, legal action is a possibility, the group said.

Since session opened on April 1st of this year, six of the seven regular Board of Supervisors' meetings have began with Christian prayers offered by members of the Christian clergy. Each of these sectarian prayers made express reference to Judeo-Christian theology, such as offering the prayer through the name or spirit of Jesus Christ. Two invocations also made reference to specific sections of the Bible.

The Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution generally bars government from engaging in official religious observance; the United States Supreme Court has however, recognized a narrow exception to this rule for prayers offered at the commencement of legislative sessions. To be permissible under this narrow exception, legislative prayers must be nonsectarian, that is, not tied a particular sect or creed.

Last month, San Diego County's Oceanside City Council agreed to discontinue a similar practice of sectarian invocations in the face of clear constitutional prohibitions. In the past, San Diego officials have been found guilty of violating the separation of church and state. Most recently, in September 1999 the city, under pressure from the ACLU ended a nine-year campaign to keep a Christian cross mounted in a public park.



The ACLU's letter to county officials follows.





June 29, 2000

BY FACSIMILE AND MAIL

Chairwoman Dianne Jacob and Members of the Board of Supervisors
County of San Diego
1600 Pacific Coast Highway
San Diego, CA 92101


Re: Sectarian Prayer at Meetings of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors


Dear Chairwoman Jacob and Members of the Board:

At the request of a County resident, the ACLU has reviewed the invocations offered at every regular Tuesday meeting of the Board of Supervisors since the beginning of April, 2000. At the commencement of each of those meetings, the Chair directed the audience to stand during the recitation of an opening prayer. Every prayer was offered by a member of the Christian clergy, and the overwhelming majority of the invocations were expressly sectarian in nature. This practice plainly violates the Constitutions of the United States and California.

Of the seven regular Board meetings held since the beginning of April, six began with a sectarian Christian prayer offered by a member of the Christian clergy. The remaining meeting, on April 11, was opened by a Christian minister who offered a nonsectarian prayer. Each of the sectarian prayers made express reference to Judeo-Christian theology.

The prayers on April 4, May 2, May 9, May 16, and June 20 all were offered through the name or spirit of Jesus Christ. On May 2, the prayer referenced the Biblical book of Jeremiah, while the prayer on June 13 referenced the book of Proverbs. On June 20, the prayer referred to Jesus Christ as the son of God, and later referred to "Christ our Lord who lives and reigns with you in unity of the Holy Spirit, for now and forever."

Although the Establishment Clause generally bars government from engaging in official religious observance, the United States Supreme Court has recognized a narrow exception to this rule for prayers offered at the commencement of legislative sessions. Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). To be permissible under this narrow exception, however, legislative prayers must be nonsectarian. As the Court noted in County of Allegheny v. ACLU, 492 U.S. 573, 603 (1989), "however history may affect the constitutionality of nonsectarian references to religion by the government, history cannot legitimate practices that demonstrate the government's allegiance to a particular sect or creed." The Court in Allegheny carefully distinguished between nonsectarian prayers, which did not align government with any one particular religion or creed, and sectarian prayers, such as those that refer to Jesus Christ: "Indeed, in Marsh itself, the Court recognized that not even the 'unique history' of legislative prayer can justify prayers that have the effect of affiliating the government with any one specific faith or belief. The legislative prayers involved in Marsh did not violate this principle because the particular chaplain had 'removed all references to Christ.'" Allegheny, 492 U.S. at 603.

Fidelity to this principle protects the right of all people to participate in the activities of their government without regard to religious faith. For example, any non-Christian attending a regular Tuesday meeting of the Board since April would have been asked to stand and observe a prayer offered in a faith that is not his own, and would have been forced to either do so against his conscience or sit in uncomfortable and obvious isolation while those around him participated in the religious observance. No person should be forced to make such a choice as a condition of attending a meeting of elected officials.

Please notify us by July 19, 2000, whether the Board of Supervisors agrees to change its practice and will henceforth require all prayer at its meetings to be nonsectarian in nature. If we do not hear from you by that date, we will pursue other means of redress.

Sincerely,



Jordan C. Budd
Managing Attorney

Linda Hills
Executive Director




cc: John Sansone, County Counsel



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