Calif. Town Drops City Council Prayers to Avoid Further Legal Costs

A small, coastal town in central California has settled a lawsuit regarding prayer at City Council meetings, ultimately agreeing to no longer hold any form of prayer, whether sectarian or non-sectarian, ahead of the local government meetings. City officials say they decided to settle the lawsuit to avoid further legal costs paid by taxpayer money. 

Pismo Beach city officials announced their settlement earlier this week, nearly six months after the Freedom From Religion Foundation [FFRF] and the local chapter of Atheists United San Luis Obispo filed a lawsuit against the city, arguing that it had violated the U.S. Constitution's separation of church and state and the state Constitution's "No Preference" Clause by allowing predominately Christian-themed prayers before city council meetings.

The groups argued that the city had allowed its volunteer chaplain, the Rev. Paul E. Jones, to lead predominately Christian prayers ahead of city council meetings from 2008 to 2013. The lawsuit alleged that Jones often called on Pismo Beach citizens to live a "Christian lifestyle in accordance with the bible," among other sectarian statements.

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As part of their settlement, city officials agreed to do away with the volunteer chaplain position, and Jones has resigned. The city has admitted no liability in the lawsuit, but said it would settle with the FFRF to avoid using taxpayer money to fund what would likely be a costly litigation process.

"[…] in keeping with the city's goal of carefully managing taxpayer funds, the City Council determined that it would not be a prudent use of public monies to contest the suit through trial," City Attorney David Fleishman said in a statement, according to The San Luis Obispo Tribune. The city will be paying $47,500 in attorneys' fees.

David Leidner, a board member of the local Atheists United San Luis Obiso group, told the Times Press Recorder that his group is "very happy the city of Pismo Beach has decided to end this exclusionary and unconstitutional practice and make their government meetings welcoming to all citizens."

The Pismo Beach ruling comes as the Supreme Court currently weighs the case of Greece vs. Galloway, in which residents of Greece, N.Y. are contesting their city council's references to "Jesus Christ" during government meetings. A decision is expected to be reached by June.

Another battle over prayer at government meetings is currently taking place in Carroll County, Md., where one city commissioner disobeyed a judge's recent ruling to temporarily stop sectarian prayers when she referenced "Jesus Christ" and "God" in a prayer prior to a commission meeting. Carroll County Commissioner Robin Bartlett Frazier decided to deliver the sectarian prayer in spite of the judge's injunction because she said the ruling was an "infringement on my First Amendment rights of free speech and free religion."

U.S. District Judge William D. Quarles Jr. had temporarily banned Carroll County commissioners from saying sectarian prayers at their government meetings after the American Humanist Association filed a lawsuit against the county, arguing their prayers were a violation of the Constitution's Establishment Clause.

Carroll County commissioners have since passed a resolution agreeing to comply with Quarles' injunction as the lawsuit proceeds through court. If the Carroll County lawsuit is resolved before the Supreme Court rules on Greece vs. Galloway, the ruling could become moot depending on the higher court's ruling.

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