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City Barred From Backing Christian Rally

May 14, 1997|HENRY WEINSTEIN and TOM GORMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A Los Angeles federal judge Tuesday issued a temporary restraining order barring the city of Redlands from proclaiming Saturday "March for Jesus Day."

U.S. District Judge Harry L. Hupp acted in response to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California. The ACLU asserted that Redlands' proclamation endorsing Saturday's march violated provisions of both the U.S. and California constitutions, which prohibit a government agency from endorsing a religion.

The proclamation, issued on April 3 bearing the official seal of Redlands and the signatures of Mayor Swen Larson and City Clerk Lorrie Poyzer, said the city would join in observing weeklong worldwide activities culminating in the Saturday march.

The proclamation describes the March for Jesus as "a festive gathering including Christians of every tradition, age and color," who come into the streets one day each year "to celebrate Jesus and to ask God's blessings on our cities." The proclamation states that the march "was established to provide leadership, coordination and training for a merging national and international network of Christians who build a local relational network that mobilizes the body of Christ."

ACLU attorneys Peter Eliasberg and Dan Tokaji said they had no objection to the march itself, only to a governmental entity endorsing it. "We have no problem with the march going forward; this is about the endorsement," Eliasberg said.

The ACLU suit contends that Redlands' action did not pass constitutional muster under a key U.S. Supreme Court decision that held that to pass constitutional scrutiny a government action must: have a secular purpose, neither promote nor inhibit religion, and not entangle the government with religion.

Hupp's order states that "the court concludes that the proclamation endorses Christianity, and therefore the plaintiffs have demonstrated a strong likelihood of success on the merits of their claims under . . . the United States Constitution and the California Constitution." He directed Redlands officials to cease any endorsement of the march.

Larson said march organizers had asked for the endorsement about five weeks ago, telling him that they expected between 7,000 and 10,000 participants and that there would be similar marches in 600 cities worldwide.

"We never had a parade in this city with that many people, marching down the streets of our town," Larson said. "I ran this . . . by the city attorney and he said, 'I don't see a problem with it, since there are no public funds being expended on it.' "

Larson said he did not consider the proclamation an endorsement of religion. "It was generic," he said. "Church groups of all kinds support Jesus. I have written proclamations for religions that don't embrace Jesus too. Nobody ever challenged me on that. Just last week, we had a national day of prayer; no one came out in opposition to that, either. I support the Jewish faith, faiths of all kinds; I'd march with any organized religion if they asked me to. It gets the focus off gangs and gang shootings."

Larson said he issued about 150 proclamations a year. "Just recently I did them for breast-feeding and physical fitness and Nurses Week. I've signed proclamations for Holocaust survivors and, next week, I'm doing one for the 100th birthday of Sacred Heart Catholic Church. The ACLU can do what it wants with that one."

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