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Clergy Assail Tustin Mayor on Prayer Issue : Religion: His letter asking them to refrain from mentioning deities in council meeting invocations prompts protest.

February 22, 1990|SHANNON SANDS

TUSTIN — Members of the local clergy today plan to protest a letter by the mayor asking them not to mention deities or even their particular religions when they pray at the start of City Council meetings.

Mayor Richard B. Edgar's letter, written in January in response to a memo from City Atty. James G. Rourke, asked the clergy to "refrain from using language that might be construed as endorsing a particular religious belief."

Rourke said several court decisions specifying what religious practices are permissible at government assemblies prompted his memo.

"If there's some dissatisfaction with the law, then they should address the court," Rourke said Wednesday. "You can't conduct church in City Hall, or in city meetings. You can't have anyone doing anything like church in City Hall. An invocation before a City Council meeting or some other governmental activity is intended only to lend a solemn note, or serious note, to the proceeding."

"The limitations are simple," Edgar said. "What it really means is that a minister can express himself as far as what he believes, but if he were to use the invocation as a forum to convert people, it would be out of line."

Although the mayor always introduces the speakers who give the invocations, telling the audience what church or temple they are from, Rourke said the clergy should not identify any particular religion during the invocation.

"Speaking about Jesus Christ is obviously identifying a particular religion," he said.

But McCready Johnston, chairman of the Tustin Interfaith Council, said the restriction "simply eliminates any Christianity out of prayer. Of course, when I pray, I pray to God the Father, God the Son, Jesus Christ, and God the Holy Ghost. Eliminating that eliminates any prayer."

Johnston, pastor at the Church of the New Covenant, and about 50 other Tustin clergy and residents have signed a letter scheduled to be delivered to City Hall today in protest of the mayor's letter.

Frank Kazerski, a Tustin resident who learned of the mayor's letter at a prayer breakfast last weekend, drafted the letter to the mayor asking him to drop the restrictions.

Kazerski said they infringe on freedom of speech and violate the separation of church and state because the government is defining acceptable language for local ministers.

Nova Dean Pack, a Tustin attorney, said he agrees with the summary of court cases included in the city attorney's memo, but disagrees with his conclusions.

"The separation of church and state does not mean that we're supposed to have God out of government," he said. "It means that we're not supposed to have the government establish a particular religious belief as a state religion, which citizens must join."

Pack pointed out that courts have "an oath that many take to tell the truth, and God is referred to. The Pledge of Allegiance denotes a deity when we say it. Our dollar bill has 'In God We Trust.' "

Appropriate limitations, based on the cases Rourke cited, would be a prohibition of preaching, proselytizing, singing hymns of a particular faith or asking people to come to the altar, Pack said.

"Most people recognize that there is a separation of church and state and that people who have a religious responsibility such as pastors have to be careful how they address a public group," Edgar said.

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