Lodi council prayers ignite debate

LODI - For years, the Lodi City Council has started every meeting with a prayer. Now those two-minute invocations, which often call on Jesus, are being answered in a way city leaders never imagined.

A national organization working for the separation of church and state notified Lodi officials that their prayers violate the U.S. Constitution and city policy, which states that invocations should be nonsectarian and nondenominational.

Religious leaders, however, contend that the name of Jesus should not be dropped from the invocations, which are led by local pastors, and that they have vowed to hold vigils and prayer meetings outside council chambers to show their support for the prayers.

City leaders say the issue will be open to public debate at an upcoming, but still unscheduled, council meeting.

"This whole thing has taken on a life of its own," said Mayor Larry Hansen. "I'm getting e-mails from all over, mainly from people who tell us we better not take Jesus out of the City Council meetings."

He said the council and Lodi residents must decide if the city should discontinue the prayers, if it should limit them, if it should go to a moment of silence or if it should continue praying the invocations in the same way.

"If we're going to stand up for a principle, then there could be a big price tag," Hansen said.

Guidelines often ignored

Lodi is not alone in beginning meetings with invocations. Many city councils and other public agencies throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley invite local clergy to offer a prayer. As in Lodi, there is not supposed to be any reference to Jesus, a guideline frequently ignored.

The debate in Lodi over the prayers began in May when city officials received a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis.

"The prayers currently given during council meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the council is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion but also Christianity over other faiths," the May 21 letter states.

Jesus Christ has been mentioned in 39 invocations since 2007, according to the foundation, which reviewed tapes of the meetings.

The group was responding to a complaint it received from a Lodi resident who wished to remain anonymous.

"What they have been doing is clearly in violation," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, who described the group as an association of free thinkers, atheists and other skeptics. "Why do they pray at city council meetings anyway? Do they need divine council to talk about sewers, liquor licenses and variances?"

The foundation has not threatened to sue the city, said Gaylor. "But we're not ruling it out either."

Religious leaders have vowed to fight any proposal to drop the prayers and say it is a freedom of speech issue.

"We do not believe that a small percentage of people should be allowed to do this," said Eugene Wilburn, pastor of Big Valley Bible Church in Lodi. "We believe the city should continue to allow religious leaders to pray as they are taught in their faith."

James Klingenschmitt, founder of Pray in Jesus Name Project, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., will lead a rally Wednesday on the steps of the Carnegie Forum in Lodi.

"The pastors should have the right to exercise their First Amendment right to use the word Jesus in public prayer," Klingenschmitt said.

The invocations are a long-standing tradition at Lodi City Council meetings, Hansen said.

Pastors usually call on God to guide their government leaders and pray for the safety of law enforcement officials and for the community to work together, he said.

Mayor: All faiths welcome

Leaders of all faiths are invited to lead the prayers, but only Christians have responded, according to the mayor.

"We've never had a Muslim or anyone from the Buddhist temple or anyone Jewish, to my knowledge," Hansen said.

After receiving the letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Lodi officials reminded pastors of city policy, which states, "invocations are not for the purpose of fostering or establishing any religious belief." Since then, pastors have dropped direct references to Jesus.

Instead, they have used words such as "Our Father in heaven," "We pray all these things in your name" and "Our dear heavenly Father." Gaylor said these are code words for Jesus.

"The prayers offered at the last three meetings continue to advance only Christianity," reads a second letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, dated July 23.

The mayor said it is unclear if these prayers violate the policy.

"Is that denominational? They're saying it is," Hansen said. "I honestly don't know."

Invocations are a gray area of the law, according to John Sims, who teaches constitutional law at McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento. He said the context and the history of the invocation are crucial. The Lodi invocations may be considered an endorsement of religion, he said.

"If someone really wants to challenge (by) alleging establishment clause violation, that case might very well be successful," Sim said.

Lodi isn't the only California city contacted by the foundation. Tracy city leaders were contacted by the group in 2007 after they failed to adopt a policy for invocation prayers.

Tracy policy states that any member of the public can offer an invocation, said Dan Sodergren, interim city attorney.

"Staff recommended that those volunteering be provided with information that these prayers should be nonsectarian," Sodergren said, "but the council chose not to adopt the recommendation."

Sodergren said he will discuss the matter with the council in a closed session Tuesday.

Lodi originally was scheduled to debate the prayer question Wednesday, Hansen said, but officials postponed it because the council has to deal with budget issues.

Because of the public response, he said, the council probably will have to meet in a bigger venue.

"Do the citizens of Lodi want to stand up against this organization and risk a potential civil rights lawsuit? Should we pray?" Hansen asked. "That's what we need to talk about."