Bishop residents met with the City Council Monday to discuss their views on the newly adopted invocation guidelines, which prohibit those from giving the invocation from using the names of specific deities, quoting scripture or referencing religious holidays.
To kick off the meeting, City Attorney Peter Tracy, who drafted the new guidelines and requested the council adopt them, gave a brief history on the first amendment and separation of church and state laws and lawsuits, to explain how and why the council adopted the new rules.
Tracy explained that two years after the Constitution was signed, Congress enacted the Bill of Rights, with the first 10 amendments to the Constitution.
“The most important amendment is the First Amendment,” Tracy said. “Freedom of religion is the first of the first amendments.”
Under the First Amendment, the U.S. Government is prohibited from establishing or limiting the practice of any religion.
“History is rife with persecution of religion,” Tracy said. “When a religion gets government power, bad things can happen, think of Iran or Afghanistan.”
Tracy said that, in 1982, a lawsuit (Ruben v. Burbank) was filed against the City of Burbank, and the California Court of Appeals said that the city was violating residents’ civil rights by holding invocations prior to government meetings.
The ruling said that prayers were welcome, but created what is called the Bright Line, outlawing the use of specific names, such as Jesus, quotations from religious scriptures and references to religious holidays.
“We ignored (the Ruben ruling) for a quite a while, because rural towns and cities weren’t getting sued, but that’s not the case anymore,” Tracy said. “We’ve done invocations since 1967 and, personally, I think Ruben is wrong, and a more general rule should be applied.”
Tracy said he began to reconsider the city’s position on invocations when Hindu Statesman Rajan Zed of Reno contacted the city a few months ago, asking to give an invocation at the City Council Meeting.
“My job is to protect the City Council and the City, and I wondered if we were being set up” for a lawsuit when Zed requested an invocation, Tracy said.
Before taking Zed up on his offer to provide an invocation, Tracy created the new guidelines to ensure that the city’s position on opening prayers was in-line with the Ruben V. Burbank ruling in the state courts.
However, when Zed provided the invocation, Tracy said he ignored the city’s guidelines, and quoted from scripture.
As a matter of etiquette, Tract did not interrupt the prayer, and said he probably wouldn’t interrupt anyone during a prayer in similar circumstances.
Tracy said the city faces another challenge when it comes to invocations and dealing with the right to pray before a meeting.
“The Civil Rights Act was meant to prevent discrimination, but it creates an uneven playing field,” Tracy said, explaining that the plaintive in a civil rights lawsuit can recoup lawyer’s fees if they win, but the defendant cannot recoup fees if proven innocent.
That means that if the city were to be sued for a civil rights infringement, it will be required to spend between $500,000 and $1 million to defend itself, win or lose.
With small cities such as Ridgecrest and Landcaster being threatened or sued, Tracy said adopting the guidelines was a prudent step.
“The city’s guidelines say nothing more than what Ruben says,” Tracy said. “I don’t like it one tiny bit, but I’ve been trying to save the invocations because I think they’re a good thing.”
Currently, the City of Lancaster is in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. That case will be heard Nov. 8 in Pasadina. If the court rules in favor of the city, Tracy said Bishop may be able to abolish the new guidelines.
In the mean time, residents who attended Monday’s meeting made it clear that they are unhappy with the guidelines.
“This is not freedom of religion, but restriction of it,” Aaron Lamb said, asking that the City Council allow residents to pray to any deity during the invocation.
Carol Harris also said the new guidelines prohibit the free exercise of religion.
Gayla Wolf said the purpose of separation of church and state laws are meant to prevent one from controlling the other. “Telling our religious leaders how to pray is oppression,” Wolf said. “There are some causes worth standing up for. The heck with all these well-intended restrictions.”
Bishop Mayor David Stottlemyre said the city could track the Lancaster case and, if the city wins, consider changing the guidelines.