Officials of a national atheist group based in Wisconsin have targeted Ventura as a "mini-theocracy" and say they are prepared to take legal action to challenge what they see as the illegal mingling of church and state.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation, which survives on annual dues of $30 from each of its 3,000 members, made its claims in a letter to Mayor Jim Monahan that assailed the city for allegedly violating the U.S. Constitution by fostering religious practices.
The group pointed to a Thanksgiving celebration at City Hall last year during which ministers offered a prayer and collected money for the homeless. Leaders also objected to the statue of Father Junipero Serra that occupies the new City Hall atrium and to the use of some churches as polling places.
"The combined effect of these abuses is to establish a mini-theocracy at Ventura City Hall, where freethinkers and other non-Christians are made to feel like outsiders and second-class citizens," spokeswoman Annie Laurie Gaylor said.
Gaylor, who also edits the group's monthly newsletter, "Freethought Today," said she learned of the practices from a Ventura freethinker who has been a member of the organization for several years.
The member, a woman in her mid-60s who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from religious groups, said she is an atheist and is offended by the ecumenical tone that she says pervades the city.
"I am well aware that people in Ventura are very conservative and don't see anything wrong with all this," she said in a telephone interview. "But I just don't happen to believe that nonsense in the Bible and I resent it interfering, little by little, with the state."
Monahan, who has asked city staff to draft a reply, said he was stunned by the accusations.
"That kind of blew me away," he said. "I never heard of this group and I don't know what their main function is. But I don't see any religious gestures in those things. I feel confident we haven't violated any rules."
Carol Green, assistant to the city manager, who has been charged with responding to the group, said the Thanksgiving service was "perfectly appropriate" and was conceived as a show of solidarity in the community, not as a religious ceremony.
Similarly, the statue of Serra, who founded the San Buenaventura Mission in 1782, is viewed primarily as a work of art commemorating one of the city's most important historical figures, she said.
Ventura County election officials, who have jurisdiction over all polling places, also defended the practice of voting in churches. Bruce Bradley, supervisor of elections, said that of the 431 polling places used in November's election, 123 were houses of worship.
"We look at location and availability," Bradley said, adding that a range of faiths--from Christian to Mormon to Buddhist--lend their buildings. "We're not advocating any particular religion."
But the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which this week sent a separate letter to county officials protesting the use of churches as polling places, said what may appear as minor points of contention are the breeding grounds for more serious abuses.
"There's this hands-off attitude that if it's religious, it must be good," Gaylor said. "That's the foot in the door. It is creating contempt for the law."
She added that Freedom From Religion frequently files lawsuits to challenge such practices and would consider attempting legal action against the city, most likely in the form of an injunction to block a similar city-sanctioned Thanksgiving observance this year.
"We hope it doesn't have to go that far," Gaylor said. "But we cannot let those services continue. I don't think you get abuses much more serious than that. It's simply not acceptable."
A spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union in Los Angeles called the atheist group a credible organization that fights for many of the same causes championed by the ACLU.
"I think they play a vital role," said Carol Sobel, an ACLU staff attorney. "Without people constantly reminding us of the need for that separation, we tend to forget about it and lower our intolerance toward infringements."
The 10-year-old foundation, based in Madison, claims a 50% success rate in its challenges. It recently played a key role in banning pregame prayer at University of Wisconsin football games, Gaylor said. However, it was unsuccessful in an attempt to sue President Reagan for declaring 1983 "The Year of the Bible."