Local Politics

Tuesday, Dec 08 2009 06:27 PM

Bakersfield council prayers too Christian?

BY GRETCHEN WENNER, Californian staff writer gwenner@bakersfield.com

First Tehachapi, now Bakersfield.

Bakersfield is the second city in Kern County to have prayers at city council meetings challenged by the Freedom From Religion Foundation Inc., a Wisconsin nonprofit with a membership of mostly atheists and agnostics.

A letter from the foundation says Bakersfield is breaking state and federal laws by opening meetings with invocations that reference a specific deity. All four invocations transcribed from recent meetings were overtly Christian.

"By hosting sectarian prayers, which tend to show preference for Christianity, the council is inappropriately entangling itself with religion," wrote Rebecca Kratz, staff attorney for the foundation. Her letter asks the city to halt the invocations or at least exclude sectarian and denominational prayers.

Ginny Gennaro, Bakersfield's city attorney, said she's not aware of the issue having been raised before. City records show prayers have been said since at least May 4, 1953.

"Based on our understanding, legislative invocations are valid," Gennaro said.

Her office will nevertheless look into the issue.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter claims to be written on behalf of an unnamed "concerned Bakersfield resident." The group counts 2,200 members in California and 14,000 nationwide.

A similar letter went to Tehachapi officials in September. Councilmembers there temporarily suspended prayers before unanimously voting later in the month to continue as before, including full-on references to Jesus.

While most prayers said before Bakersfield's meetings are from Christian clergy, the city makes an effort to include all faiths, said City Clerk Pam McCarthy. Jews, Sikhs, Muslims and even a Native American leader who burned rosemary have all given invocations. No one who has asked has been denied, she said.

Vice Mayor Zack Scrivner -- the letter was addressed to Scrivner and Mayor Harvey Hall -- said council prayers are a tradition.

"In government at all levels, meetings have been opened with prayer since our nation's founding," Scrivner said, "and I certainly don't think that should change."

"I'm really not surprised this is coming to Bakersfield," said Councilmember Jacquie Sullivan, president and founder of In God We Trust America Inc., a nonprofit devoted to placing the national motto adopted in 1956 in council chambers around the country.

Sullivan said she does not believe in censoring someone's prayer.

"It's a freedom of speech issue," she said.

Rob Boston, an author and senior policy analyst for the Washington, D.C.-based group Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a religious liberty group led by an ordained minister, said the history of government-sponsored prayer in America is complex.

The “tradition” argument only gets you so far, he wrote in an e-mail.

“Thankfully, we live in a country where the rights of our people are not determined by tradition; they are enshrined in our Constitution,” Boston wrote. “That document is the only appropriate guide for adjudicating matters like this.”

While some say the prayer issue is about free speech, Boston said the fact it’s government-sponsored speech changes things. That Bakersfield gives many different religions access to the forum might be a mitigating factor from a legal perspective, he added.

When communities try to set up a totally open forum for prayers, "what usually happens is that sooner or later someone comes along from a religion that is unpopular or misunderstood" -- such as a Wiccan or Pagan -- "and the conservative Christians throw a fit," he said in an e-mail.

No Wiccans or Pagans have opened Bakersfield's meeting, as far as anyone can remember.

When asked how she would react to a Wiccan invocation, Sullivan said the city would live up to its policy of not discriminating.

"It would be their turn," she said.

Brad Dacus, attorney with the pro-religion Pacific Justice Institute in Sacramento, said his group offers free legal counsel to cities on the prayer issue.

There are ways it can be set up to better mitigate potential lawsuits, Dacus said.

"No city should ever feel they cannot have prayer at council meetings because somehow law or the Constitution forbids it," he said.

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