Atheist Group Sues Calif. City Over Chaplain's Prayer at City Council Meetings

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to take up the issue of prayer before government meetings this week, a major atheist group has filed a lawsuit against a California city, arguing the city allowed a chaplain to deliver sectarian prayers at city council meetings for the past several years.

The church-state separatist group Freedom From Religion Foundation [FFRF] has filed a lawsuit in the San Luis Obispo Superior Court against the city of Pismo Beach, Calif., located on the state's central coast. The lawsuit claims that the city's chaplain Rev. Paul E. Jones, a volunteer, has provided predominately Christian-themed invocations prior to city council meetings for the past five years. The lawsuit seeks to have the city's chaplain position discontinued and to stop the practice of prayer before city council meetings.

"With 20% 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, FFRF co-president, said in a press release regarding the lawsuit. "Non-Christian believers are also excluded when the government prayer is Christian, as it routinely is. It's time public officials catch up with the changing demographics. Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work," she added.

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"In virtually every city prayer, Jones pressures citizens and the council to live a Christian lifestyle in accordance with the bible, to vote for 'righteous' leaders and to make decisions that honor Jones' particular god," the FFRF press release states.

The press release goes on to claim that out of the 112 city council prayers delivered by Jones from 2008 to 2013, the vast majority of the prayers made reference to a Christian God and Christian beliefs.

Pismo Beach city attorney David Fleishman has argued, however, that California law allows the city to have a chaplain as long as the chaplain does not heavily promote just one religion, and he believes Rev. Jones has been very conscious of being inclusive in his city council addresses.

"To my recollection, Dr. Jones has been very good about that through the years," Fleishman told The San Luis Obispo Tribune. Fleishman added that his city has had very few complaints since Jones was named chaplain. "I'm not aware of any significant controversy - until today," the attorney said.

The FFRF lawsuit against the city of Pismo Beach comes as the Supreme Court prepares to take up the case of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, Susan, a lawsuit filed by residents of Greece, New York who argue their city violated their first amendment rights by allowing predominately Christian prayers to take place at government meetings. The ruling of the case would set a precedent for prayer at government meetings in the U.S.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation stated that "regardless of how the Supreme Court decides the Greece case, FFRF's case can proceed, and could carve out protections against government prayer for all citizens in the country's most populated state."

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