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Council seeks balance on invocation issue

July 30, 2012

City leaders approved a new set of guidelines for volunteers who offer a prayer to open City Council meetings. The guidelines are meant to ensure the city does not violate separation of church and state laws. File photo

City leaders took a look at First Amendment rights Monday and decided to update Bishop’s policy on pre-meeting prayers to ensure the city is not at risk of being sued for its traditional invocations.
City Attorney Peter Tracy said that several cities in California have been threatened with lawsuits over invocations being given at the start of government meetings. The threats have come from a group that is attempting to ensure the First Amendment is being practiced in local government.
“There have been groups, not local groups, trying to ensure the rules (regarding invocations) are followed,” Tracy said Monday. “Suits have been filed against other cities, but not ours.”
Tracy hopes to avoid any threat of a lawsuit, while keeping the tradition of invocations before City Council meetings alive.
While the First Amendment does prohibit any government agency from promoting any one religion, Tracy said two Supreme Court cases, Marsh v. Chambers and Rubin v. Burbank, have determined invocations are legal, as long as the government agency participating in the practice does not show favoritism towards or denounce any religion or religious group.
Currently, the city has a list of local ministers who volunteer to give the invocation before the beginning of each of the city’s two monthly council meetings.
Those who are interested in giving an invocation are placed on a rotating schedule, giving all an equal opportunity to bless the meeting.
The guidelines the city approved this week ask anyone giving an invocation to “avoid references to a particular deity (such as Jesus Christ, Buddah, Allah or ‘Our Father in Heaven’). More generic and inclusive terms, such as God, Holy One and Creator, are acceptable.”
The guidelines also ask that invocations not include any reference to religious holidays or events, and do not include any quotes from “any sectarian book, doctrine or other material.”
Those who perform the invocation are also prohibited from making any reference to a particular religion, either positive or negative.
Tracy said he used invocation guidelines that were already on the books for a number of other California cities.
“We thank numerous cities, which graciously shared their already established guidelines, which were utilized in developing the City of Bishop’s invocation policy,” Tracy said.
The goal, he said, is to be able to continue the tradition of beginning each City Council meeting with a prayer, which the city has been doing since 1967, while adhering to the law.
A copy of the new invocation policy will be given to anyone who volunteers to perform the opening prayer before a council meeting.
“We don’t want to be treading on what they will say, but we don’t want an invocation that will get the city sued,” Tracy said.
A copy of the city’s new invocation policy is available at City Hall on West Line Street or on the city’s website, www. ca-bishop.us.

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