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Lively Debate in Santa Monica : Council Drops Prayer From Meetings

May 07, 1987|JAY GOLDMAN | Times Staff Writer

The Santa Monica City Council hasn't a prayer.

The council Tuesday, by a 4-3 vote, dropped prayer from the customary invocation period at the beginning of its meetings.

Eliminating prayer will require the council to change the rules for its meetings, City Atty. Robert Myers said. Any proposed change in council rules must receive a public hearing and ratification by a majority of the council, he said. Myers said Tuesday that he will return the rule change to the council "soon."

Councilman David Finkel sparked a lively debate when he asked that prayer be eliminated from council meetings. In its place, Finkel suggested a non-religious "moment of inspiration" that could feature music, poetry or other "uplifting" thought.

Santa Monica's council has opened its meetings with a short prayer, usually conducted by visiting Christian or Jewish clergy, for as long as anyone can remember.

"I have received a number of complaints from citizens about having a prayer," Finkel said. The council's invocation not only violated the concept and spirit of the constitutional separation of church and state but often excluded atheists and religious minorities, he said.

Councilman Herb Katz made the motion to drop prayer, saying: "Let's keep religion out of the council meeting." The motion was seconded by Finkel.

Substitute Motion Defeated

Council members Alan Katz and Mayor James P. Conn, who is a Methodist minister, joined Herb Katz and Finkel. Before the vote, the four defeated a substitute motion by council member Christine E. Reed that would have expanded the invocation to include either prayer or secular ceremonies.

"I don't want to eliminate prayer," Reed said in making her motion, which was seconded by Councilman Dennis Zane.

Councilman William H. Jennings, in support of Reed's motion, said he not only wanted to keep prayer in the council's invocation, but that he would object if the prayer was not from the Christian, Jewish or Muslim religions.

"I would object to Hindus, Shintoists or others giving the invocation because according to my religion I could not participate in that," he said. Jennings said after the meeting that his participation in non-Judeo-Christian prayers would violate the prohibition against worshiping other gods that is one of the Ten Commandments.

"In my eight years or so on the council no one has ever complained to me about the invocation," Jennings said. "I don't care whether atheists object to prayer or not. I'm a practicing Christian and I find nothing wrong with asking God for guidance," he said.

"Bill Jennings just gave an articulate rationale of why (the motion to eliminate prayer) is appropriate," replied Alan Katz. "It is up to government to include people, not exclude. It is likely we are excluding someone when a moment of inspiration becomes specifically religious."

Conn, responding to Jennings' remarks, said he had found the works of some non-Christians, such as Gandhi, to be an important part of his religious training.

'Pluralism of Society'

"It seems to me our responsibility in this society is to reflect the pluralism of this society," Conn said. "At one time those considered by government to be human were white male Christians." But as society became more tolerant of other groups it became more democratic and just, he said.

Zane said he objected to the motion to drop prayer because it would force the council to decide whether proposed invocations are secular or religious. That is "not a distinction I'd be comfortable in making," he said.

The council's action leaves Culver City as the only Westside municipality that opens its council meetings with a religious invocation.

The Santa Monica City Council's decision was applauded by Esther A. Shapiro, an official with the American Jewish Congress, a group that has often worked to maintain strict separation between church and state. "We have long believed that opening prayers at public meetings tend to degrade religion, since they are essentially symbolic and ceremonial and not used for truly religious purposes," she said.

Clergy for the council invocation are selected by the Westside Ecumenical Conference. The Rev. David Mcallister, conference director, said prayers "done in a sensitive and appropriate way can be very helpful" in a government meeting.

College District Vote

"The invocations are important because they allow us to focus people's attention on the fact that, while we are there for a specific purpose, we are linked together by being people of God," Mcallister, a member of the Disciples of Christ, said.

The board of trustees of the Santa Monica Community College District on Monday also voted to change its invocation to a moment of "inspiration," said trustee Chairwoman Carole Currey.

But religious figures will probably be invited to open some trustee meetings, she said. Lay persons could open the other meetings by invoking God or using the time for something secular, such as reading a poem.

Currey said she was not aware that the council was also reconsidering its invocation policy this week.

The U.S. Supreme Court in a 1983 ruling said it is not unconstitutional for legislatures to open their meetings with prayers.

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