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New Times / Commentary

The following article was posted on July 16th, 2014, in the New Times - Volume 28, Issue 51 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from New Times [newtimesslo.com] - Volume 28, Issue 51

It's time to fight

A national organization is promising pro bono legal help to keep invocations in city council meetings

BY HEIDI FLANAGAN

A few months ago, the city of Pismo Beach voted to end invocations during their council meetings, buckling to legal pressure by Freedom From Religion Foundation and the San Luis Obispo chapter of Atheists United. The city agreed to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees of $47,500 plus one dollar to each of the two plaintiffs named in the case.

Pismo Beach isn’t the only city that recently gave up the right to pray at the start of public meetings. Guadalupe did away with theirs around the same time in closed session. Truth be told, both Guadalupe and Pismo Beach have the same city attorney: David Fleishman. And both cities blindly followed his advice to do away with their invocations.

Pismo Beach and Guadalupe did not have to give up their right of invocation. It’s a matter of council people not being armed with the proper information and being intimidated by the financial pressure of lawsuits.

It’s time to draw a line in the sand, people, and stop this erosion of our right to free speech in this country. This includes the freedom of religious expression. And we must go on the offensive before the other side does. Atheists United vowed in April to go after any remaining cities that have invocations. Those cities are Arroyo Grande, Paso Robles, and Santa Maria.

What can be done? The Alliance Defending Freedom offers pro bono, or free, legal help to cities that want to keep their invocations. The organization’s lawyers will help cities draft invocation policies that comply with California and federal law. Also, if groups such as FFRF challenge the policies in court, ADF promises pro bono legal help to bring such challenges to a grinding halt. The following online document from ADF contains all the particulars: http://www.adfmedia.org/files/openletterpublicinvocations.pdf. This is the same organization successfully defended the Town of Greece in a high-profile lawsuit decided by the Supreme Court in May.

The goal isn’t to advance the cause of Christianity per se. It’s to maintain the freedom of any religious group to pray to whatever god they choose at the start of government meetings. That’s the spirit of the court’s opinion in Town of Greece v. Galloway, as stated in the following:

“As a practice that has long endured, legislative prayer has become part of our heritage and tradition, part of our expressive idiom, similar to the Pledge of Allegiance [and] inaugural prayer... That a prayer is given in the name of Jesus, Allah, or Jehovah, or that it makes passing references to religious doctrines, does not remove it from that tradition.”

And if atheists claim to not have a religion, they actually do. In choosing no religion, they are actually making a religious choice. How about leading an invocation with a moment of silence? Don’t take away others’ rights to ask their higher power for wisdom and a blessing on the meeting. In doing so, you are forcing those of other faiths to worship your god, which just so happens to be no god.

Consider the painstaking work our Founding Fathers and Mothers did when they formed this country to establish the right of free religious expression. They started the practice of praying before public meetings. Also, let’s not forget our veterans who have fought to preserve our country’s rights and peace. Don’t allow a few squeaky wheels strip us of freedoms for which blood was shed to establish and maintain.

The Tribune quoted Fleishman as saying that the California constitution prohibits invocations, despite the Town of Greece v. Galloway decision, which was made under the U.S. Constitution.

Hogwash, said Brett Harvey, an attorney at Alliance Defending Freedom. Cities in California have a legal right to keep their invocations, per legal precedent. In Rubin v. City of Lancaster, a 2013 decision in the 9th Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, the judge decided that the city could legally continue offering invocations during public meetings and found that they did not promote or establish any particular religion.

The California Constitution Article 1, Section 4 clearly says: “Free exercise and enjoyment of religion without discrimination or preference are guaranteed. ... The Legislature shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Similarly, the U.S. Constitution says in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof … .”

That means any religion that wants to give an invocation has a legal right to do so.

Residents of Santa Maria, Paso Robles, and Arroyo Grande: Please take action. Clip this article. Highlight the section about ADF’s offer of pro bono legal assistance in establishing an invocation policy. Meet with or mail it to your city council member and encourage them to establish an invocation policy. ADF said city council members must initiate the process.

Don’t let just a few people take this privilege away with the weapons of intimidation and lack of knowledge. If it’s taken away, it will be much harder to get it back.

 

Heidi Flanagan just so happens to live in Arroyo Grande. Send comments to the executive editor at rmiller@newtimesslo.com.