TURLOCK — A Wisconsin group aiming to take religion out of government has set its sights on the prayers offered to open every Turlock City Council meeting.
Calling such prayers "unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive," the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter of Aug. 13 says council members can pray on their own and "do not need to worship on taxpayers' time."
Councilman Kurt Spycher, who handles scheduling for the invocations, issued a statement in response.
"It is my belief that legislative prayer is a cherished and lawful American tradition," he said, pointing out that several government policies have religious ties, from the observance of a Christmas holiday to military chaplains to the president's declaration of a National Day of Prayer.
Rebecca Kratz, attorney for the foundation, said her group issued the letter after getting a complaint from a Turlock resident. Kratz said the foundation has heard from people around the country after it issued a similar complaint to the Lodi City Council in May.
Freedom From Religion has since sent letters to Tracy; Philadelphia; North Richland Hills, Texas; and North Chesapeake, Va., Kratz said.
"We only act on complaints that we receive from our members or local residents," Kratz said. "We don't go out and search for city councils that are in violation."
Kratz said the foundation reviews video recordings of meetings before deciding what action, if any, to take.
"They do the business of the people," she said. "They are a secular group, and they convene for a secular purpose."
Kratz said her group particularly takes issue with Turlock because at each invocation reviewed, from May through June, the prayer invoked the name of Jesus Christ.
"Prayer itself is constitutional," she said, "but it has to be nondenominational, nonsectarian."
Spycher said the opportunity to offer an invocation is available to "any faith leader."
At a council meeting in July, he said he was putting together the calendar for the upcoming fiscal year and invited anyone interested to contact him. He hasn't heard from anyone new, he said.
Spycher said Friday the Alliance Defense Fund, a Christian nonprofit group, has offered its services to the city for free. It will be up to the council to determine what to do next.
"I intend to defend our right to participate in the cherished and lawful American tradition of legislative prayer," he said.
The U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue in 1983, when it found in favor of the Nebraska Legislature, which opened each day in session with a prayer offered by a chaplain paid with public funds.
The court found that "there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society. To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an 'establishment' of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country."
Turlock City Attorney Phaedra Norton said Friday she is tracking down the council's history on prayer, but she wasn't sure the city has a written policy. She said she hopes to have a report for the council to consider next month.
Kratz said if the city is going to keep the invocations, officials need to work harder to make them nondenominational and "cast a wider net" to include faiths outside of Christianity and Judaism.
She said the organization is willing to go to court over the issue, though for now it is waiting to see how the council responds.
"It takes a long time to go through," Kratz said. "They have to have one meeting to discuss it with the attorney, another meeting to discuss it in the public. Resolutions have to be drafted. All of the ones I've been working on this summer haven't been fully resolved."
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2343.