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Lancaster's prayer problem

The courts have upheld its practice of opening City Council meetings with a prayer. But the practice is inappropriate, and it should stop.

March 28, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, center, leads the opening prayer at a City Council meeting in 2009.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris, center, leads the opening prayer at a City… (Los Angeles Times )

Once again Lancaster has been vindicated — or "blessed," as the city's press release put it — by a court ruling upholding its practice of opening City Council meetings with a prayer. On Tuesday, a federal appellate court affirmed a district court ruling that a single reference to Jesus Christ in an invocation did not violate the constitutional separation of church and state.

But regardless of what the courts say about its legality, opening council meetings with a prayer is inappropriate, and it should stop.

The original suit was filed by two citizens — one Jewish, one Christian — who argued not that prayer should be prohibited but that the explicit reference to Jesus violated the U.S. Constitution. Both courts have now found otherwise. In the decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a panel of three judges found that a sectarian reference was not forbidden so long as it "does not proselytize, advance or disparage one religion or affiliate government with a particular faith." The court found that the city was not trying to ally itself officially with Christianity even though the majority of City Council prayers have been Christian.

Indeed, the city doesn't limit itself to Christian prayers. Its official policy is to try to contact and invite representatives of all religious groups in the area, no matter their denomination. All are cautioned against any prayers that disparage other beliefs. And maybe the reason that most of those who show up to offer a prayer are Christian is simply a reflection of the demographics of the area, as Mayor R. Rex Parris suggests.

But even if other religious groups availed themselves of the opportunity more often, the practice is still unnecessary and potentially offensive. The public and the council are there to transact business. Why are references to Jesus or Allah or Vishnu or any other deity germane?

Lancaster, an ethnically and economically diverse community, has had its problems with issues of inclusiveness in recent years. A lawsuit alleging that the city was harassing black and Latino residents on federal housing assistance was dropped last year. And Parris was quoted three years ago saying he was "growing a Christian community"; he subsequently explained that he only meant a loving community.

As Lancaster officials try to cultivate that loving community, they should stop opening their meetings with a prayer. They risk leaving people feeling excluded or awkward by a practice that is out of place at City Hall.

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