Council's prayer policy a rarity

August 19, 2008 11:00 pm

To the editor:

In this letter, I continue my comments about prayer at city council meetings, which you published a couple of weeks ago.

On July 22, the issue before city council was supposed to be just a housekeeping change in the invocation policy: remove the word "nonpartisan" and replace it with "nonsectarian." Councilors Beverly Calder and Andrew Bryan had both championed such a change at the preceding city council meeting. But at the July 22 city council meeting, Councilor Calder moved to exclude both terms from the invocation policy, thus leaving the door as wide open as before for all kinds of unconstitutional sectarian prayers, i.e., prayers identified with a particular religion. The motion passed unanimously.

During the discussion before the vote, Don Williams opined that not allowing sectarian prayers was "intolerant." Councilor Terry Schumacher claimed it was in fact illegal to prohibit sectarian prayers at government meetings. (He failed to cite any legal source to back up his claim.)

From their comments, it's pretty clear that Williams and Schumacher are not aware that in the whole state of California it is illegal to say sectarian prayers at city council meetings.

Here's the background for the leading California case. In 1999 Irv Rubin, a Jew, and Roberto Alejandro Gandara, a Catholic, sued the city of Burbank for saying prayers that ended in "in Jesus' name." Rubin and Gandara prevailed over the city of Burbank at trial and before the California Court of Appeals. Both the California and U. S. Supreme courts refused to overturn the decision.

Here's what the court ordered in Rubin v. city of Burbank: City councils may not say sectarian prayers at their meetings and must instruct members of the public invited to give invocations that prayers must be nonsectarian.

P.S.: Invocations are not part of the agenda at city council meetings in 97.5 percent of the 234 municipalities in Oregon, and are not included in meetings of six of the seven city councils in Baker County. Baker City Council is pretty much out there all alone in mixing religion and government in Oregon.

Gary Dielman

Baker City