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Prayer Ban for Public Meetings Upheld

September 10, 2002|JEAN GUCCIONE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

California city councils that begin meetings with an invocation will have to reassess that practice after a state appellate court on Monday upheld a ban on sectarian prayer in such settings.

The 2nd District Court of Appeal rejected the city of Burbank's argument that the ban violates the free-speech rights of the ministers who lead the invocation at each Tuesday's City Council meeting.

The court ruled that a prayer that invoked the name of Jesus Christ "conveyed the message that Christianity was being advanced over other religions," in violation of the establishment clause of the 1st Amendment, which requires the separation of church and state.

Santa Monica attorney Roger Jon Diamond, who represented the plaintiffs, was pleased with the ruling.

"Now, as of today, it becomes a precedent throughout the state of California," he said. Local city officials "would be violating their oaths of office if they allow sectarian prayers to go on."

Burbank Chief Assistant City Atty. Juli C. Scott was disappointed with the ruling, but said the city has not yet decided whether to appeal.

"It's too bad," she said. "I think the court missed the whole point. We shouldn't be in the business to tell people how to pray."

The case arose after Irv Rubin, chairman of the Jewish Defense League, attended a Burbank City Council meeting In November 1999 that began with a Christian prayer led by David King, a Mormon bishop, who ended with "in the name of Jesus Christ."

Subsequently Rubin, along with Roberto Alejandro Gandara, a Christian, sued the city.

A month later, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Alexander Williams III issued an injunction banning sectarian prayer at council meetings. Ever since, the City Council has asked local ministers to offer nonsectarian prayers at its meetings.

Diamond said Monday that he would not be able to tell Rubin about the decision until today, when he plans to visit his client at the Metropolitan Detention Center in downtown Los Angeles, where Rubin awaits trial on unrelated charges that he plotted to bomb a Culver City mosque and a congressman's office.

In the 15-page opinion, written by Justice Kathryn Doi Todd, the court contended that "to demand neutrality when the interests of religion and government intersect is increasingly more important as our nation becomes more pluralistic."

The court also rejected Burbank's argument that the invocation is "private speech" and found "that any legislative prayer that proselytizes or advances one religious belief or faith or disparages another" is unconstitutional.

"By directing the prayer to 'Our Father in Heaven ... in the name of Jesus Christ,' the invocation conveyed the message that the Burbank City Council is a Christian body, and from this it could be inferred that the council was advancing a religious belief," Doi Todd wrote. Justices Michael G. Nott and Judith Ashmann-Gerst concurred.

Los Angeles attorney T. Peter Pierce filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of 34 California cities that begin their meetings with prayer.

Pierce said he would advise city attorneys, but warned of potential problems. "I think it is very difficult to determine what is [sectarian] and what is [nonsectarian]," he said.

The appellate court, however, declined to consider his argument that the ban is ambiguous and unenforceable.

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