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Pismo Beach hit with lawsuit from religious watchdog

BY RHYS HEYDEN

They've been agitated for years, and now a coalition of individuals and organizations who object to Pismo Beach's brand of public prayer filed an extensive, strongly worded lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court on Nov. 1.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, is the official name on the suit, with Dr. Sari Dworkin--a Pismo resident, psychologist, and self-identified "atheist Jew"--serving as the local plaintiff.


Pismo Beach City Hall
PHOTO BY RHYS HEYDEN

The suit alleges that prayers conducted at Pismo Beach City Council meetings are unconstitutional, requests a permanent end to said prayers, and seeks to declare the city's appointment of Dr. Paul Jones as city chaplain as unconstitutional, too. Dworkin and the foundation are also pursuing nominal damages, attorney's fees, and court costs.

The suit names the city of Pismo Beach, the Pismo Beach City Council, Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, and Dr. Paul Jones as defendants.

The exhaustive lawsuit consists of a 25-page complaint, 170 pages of exhibits, and a 57-page appendix.

"With 20 percent of the adult population today identifying as nonreligious, at least a fifth of the population is routinely excluded and offended by official prayer conducted by the city," Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, said in a news release. "Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work."

The council established an official "city chaplain" position in 2005, and appointed Jones--even buying him a name tag and official business cards. Jones, a Pentecostal preacher affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, has served as the city chaplain ever since.

During the 2005 council meeting that created the city chaplain position, former city manager Kevin Rice warned against the "undetermined legal risk" the city was assuming by creating the position in "California's litigious climate."

In his agenda report, Rice reminded the council of a 2003 resolution that expressly prohibited "sectarian" invocations at council meetings. The council created the position and appointed Jones anyhow, acknowledging "the blessings that the creator has bestowed on the citizens of Pismo Beach" in its resolution.

The foundation alleges that Pismo Beach has been in violation of the "no preference and establishment" clauses of the California Constitution ever since the city chaplain position was created back in 2005.

The complaint claims that Jones' prayers often turn into sectarian mini-sermons which "proselytize and advance Christianity, and disparage non-Christians."

Particularly damning is Jones' prayer from Oct. 16, 2012, when he asked the "Heavenly Father" to prompt citizens to "elect leaders who will stand up for the clear standards that are expressed in the Bible, the Holy Writings of God." Jones also complained that "many of our citizens and leaders have turned from the path of righteousness in our lives and lifestyles."

Jones then continued to request that "city hall and these council chambers" be filled with "the peace and power of Your eternal presence, and cause every home and every citizen in Pismo Beach to feel the impact."

The suit documents 126 prayers scheduled by the council between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013. Jones delivered 112 of the 126 prayers, the Christian Bible was specifically cited at least 88 times, and all but one of the 126 prayers were addressed to the Christian god.

In his invocation from April 6, 2010, Jones bemoaned how the "moral compass of the Holy Scriptures has been largely laid aside." Jones said this abandonment has caused "public morality" to decline to "dangerously low points."

The complaint alleges that the prayers caused Dworkin to "feel offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated about participating in her own government."

The lawsuit--which took more than a year to compile--was prepared by Los Angeles intellectual property attorney Pamela Koslyn, Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, and Atheists United of San Luis Obispo.

The latter wrote a letter to the council on May 15, 2012, objecting to Jones' invocations, which was followed up by a longer Aug. 15, 2012, letter from foundation attorney Seidel to Mayor Higginbotham.

After both letters and several anti-invocation speakers at council public comment failed to receive any kind of response, the foundation began drafting the lawsuit in earnest.

When contacted by phone, Jones thanked the reporter for the kindness, but referred New Times to the city for comment. Pismo Beach City Attorney Dave Fleishman and Mayor Higginbotham had no comment, as they were unaware of the recently filed lawsuit. Pismo Beach City Manager Jim Lewis did not respond to New Times' request for comment as of press time.

Staff Writer Rhys Heyden can be reached at rheyden@newtimesslo.com.

 

BONUS CONTENT

 

The full text of the complaint, exhibits, and appendix, courtesy of the FFRF.

PDF of FFRF Lawsuit Complaint (25 pages)

PDF of FFRF Lawsuit Exhibits (170 pages)

PDF of FFRF Lawsuit Appendix (57 pages)