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Lodi defends its public prayers

City Council, one of several threatened with suits, votes after hours of debate, to continue the practice.

October 03, 2009|Steve Chawkins

LODI, CALIF. — Small cities in California are facing high unemployment, drained treasuries and now what some residents see as an assault on the only sacred moment in municipal affairs: the invocation at the start of city council meetings.

Turlock, Tracy, Tehachapi, Lancaster -- all have been threatened in the last few months with lawsuits claiming that prayer at meetings breaches the wall between church and state.

Nowhere has the ensuing debate played out more dramatically than in Lodi, where, after a tumultuous five-hour meeting this week, the City Council voted not only to continue invocations but also to allow phrases such as "in Jesus' name."

"For whatever reason, Lodi seems to have become ground zero for deciding this issue," City Atty. Steve Schwabauer said at Wednesday's meeting, which drew a passionate crowd of more than 700.

At times, rhetoric boiled over as speakers trooped to the microphone in a local auditorium -- the only room in town that could hold the anticipated crowd. A woman who identified herself as an atheist blasted Christianity, blaming it for the decimation of native Americans, the Salem witch burnings and "the oppression of all non-Christians." Several speakers countered with stories of their personal salvation and dire warnings about the consequence of snuffing out prayer at city hall.

Frank Nolton, a local pastor, lamented the loss of school prayer, which was found unconstitutional in 1962.

"Our schools have become veritable war zones and playgrounds for immorality," he said. "If we disregard prayer, will our city follow the same fate?" The crowd applauded heartily. When another speaker recalled the Lodi that once was as "a town that honored God so well everything was locked down from Friday night till Monday morning," an "Amen!" rang out.

A city of about 61,000, Lodi is the commercial center of a huge vineyard industry south of Sacramento. It has a substantial number of Sikhs and Muslims, but only one or two non-Christians have delivered invocations at its City Council meetings in the last decade, according to city officials.

Public prayer has been a battlefield for years. In Central California, the fight has been revived in a flurry of letters from a Wisconsin-based group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"It was just our summer for Jesus prayers," said Annie Laurie Gaylor, one of the organization's founders. "The more action you do on it, the more you hear from people across the country who are concerned."

She said the group is planning to sue over the issue in California, though it's still unclear which city will provide the strongest case.

Gaylor said she was alerted to Lodi's prayer practice by a group member who lives in the area and felt "horrified and excluded" by the invocations' frequent references to Jesus. The city required three years ago that prayers be "nondenominational and nonsectarian," but the policy has not been enforced.

In Lancaster, objections to similar prayers at council meetings came from the ACLU of Southern California. In response, the city in August adopted a policy much like the one approved this week in Lodi: Make an effort at finding non-Christians to give invocations, tell people not to proselytize and don't censor what they have to say.

"It was the typical 'gotcha' thing from the ACLU," said Ron Smith, Lancaster's vice mayor. "We basically told them to pound sand."

In Lodi, the issue exploded after it was taken up by a former Navy chaplain named Gordon James Klingenschmitt, founder of an effort called Pray in Jesus' Name. A resident of Colorado Springs, Colo., he organized a Lodi prayer rally that drew more than 300 people chanting the name of Jesus as a couple dozen opponents wielded signs. Last week, he vowed to buy a year's worth of billboard space around Lodi naming any council members who voted against invocations.

On his website, he claimed that threat changed the mind of Mayor Larry Hansen, who had earlier leaned toward a moment of silence rather than a spoken prayer. In an interview Friday, the mayor, a retired police officer, rejected Klingenschmitt's claim. But he said the ex-chaplain was at least partly responsible for Lodi's unwanted national exposure.

"There's been nothing close to it. It was unprecedented," Hansen said, adding that he received 1,500 e-mails, mostly supporting prayer, from across the U.S.

For the Lodi council, the moment-of-silence idea represented a needless retreat from principle. And prayers scrubbed of overt religious references are, as one speaker put it, "a banquet without food."

Members crafted their new policy with help from attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based network of Christian lawyers.

"There's no reason to censor or silence a cherished tradition," said Mike Johnson, the group's senior legal counsel. "Over the last five or six years, atheist groups have swiped at it with radical demand letters to relatively defenseless, small, hometown governments."

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