The Lodi City Council voted unanimously on Wednesday to allow prayers to be said in Jesus' name before council meetings.
The 5-0 vote repeals the city's current policy requiring prayers to be "non-sectarian and non-denominational." A new policy allowing uncensored invocations will be developed.
"I personally regret the decision this council made to have prayers that were nondenominational and nonsectarian," said Mayor Larry Hansen, according to the Stockton Record. "I believe the right decision is to set up a policy that allows uncensored prayers by anybody in this community who is a recognized part of the clergy."
Hundreds of Lodi, Calif., residents marched near Hutchins Street Square and packed the auditorium for a public hearing on the issue. The city council opted to open the debate to the public after atheists and agnostics at the Freedom From Religion Foundation complained in May that the prayers at the start of meetings "impermissibly advance Christianity."
Residents were divided as religious leaders appealed to the council to allow prayers in Jesus' name and others called for a ban on prayers altogether.
Some suggested that council meetings be preceded by a moment of silence rather than prayer.
Lodi resident Andrea Songey-Neff told The Sacramento Bee that she favored the city's policy on nonsectarian invocations.
"We had a good policy in place. The Christians decided to shove their lifestyle in our faces," she said to the local newspaper.
But for Alamo attorney Terry Thompson, nonsectarian prayer "is like a banquet without food."
"You want the Lord's blessings on your deliberations. That's the real issue here," he said, as reported by the local Bee.
For months, former Navy Chaplain Gordon James Klingenschmitt, who organized The Pray In Jesus Name Project, has been lobbying and petitioning in Lodi and other cities in support of the right to invoke Jesus' name. He contends that praying in Jesus' name is constitutional and has urged city officials not to submit to the atheists.
During the public hearing on Wednesday, he advocated for permitting not only Christian invocations but also atheist, Muslim, Jewish and Buddhist prayers.
The city council's decision to allow uncensored prayers follows votes in three other California cities – Tehachapi, Tracy, and Turlock – favoring invocations of all faiths and of no faith.