Religious Freedom Lawyers Respond to Atheists Wanting Prayer at City Council Meetings Stopped

Two groups of atheist activists on the national and local level are trying to stop a city council in California from starting its meetings with prayer.

Alliance Defending Freedom sent a legal memo to the city of Chico Thursday after the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter demanding the city stop opening public meetings with a prayer. The city's policy allows various members of the community to offer the prayers. ADF attorneys are currently defending a New York town's similar prayer policy at the U.S. Supreme Court.

"Americans today should be as free as the Founders were to pray," said ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman. "The Founders prayed while drafting our Constitution's Bill of Rights, and the Supreme Court has ruled that public prayer is part of the 'history and tradition of this country.' The city of Chico, therefore, is on extremely firm ground to allow prayer before its public meetings."

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The ADF legal letter states, "Fortunately, Chico can not only look to the historical example of the U.S. Congress and clear Supreme Court precedent, but this past Spring the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has expressly reaffirmed the right of Cities to open their public meetings with a prayer…" The letter additionally points out that the 9th Circuit "went further to clarify the Cities need not censor the content of the prayers or prevent people from offering prayers that are distinctive to their own faith traditions."

Senior Counsel Brett Harvey added, "A few people should not be able to extinguish the traditions of our nation merely because they heard something they didn't like. Because the authors of the Constitution invoked God's blessing on public proceedings, this tradition shouldn't suddenly be considered unconstitutional. It's perfectly constitutional to allow community members to ask for God's blessing according to their conscience."

As opponents to public expressions of faith in the town square often do, the local group the Coalition of Reason and FFRF point to the First Amendment and "separation between church and state" as an argument against such actions. Supporters of prayer and displays of religion in the U.S. government say that prayer and displays of faith are not an "establishment of religion" as the clause was intended to prevent the government from doing.

However, as reported by the Chico Enterprise-Record, coalition coordinator George Gold writes in his letter to the Chico mayor: "I'm very troubled by the continuing introduction of religion into the beginning of every City Council meeting. The First amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America clearly states that there shall be no establishment of religion by our governments."

The Record reports that the invocations represented at the city council meetings thus far have represented a multitude of faiths, including recent invocations from Sonrise Christian Center, Pacific Asian Missions and Congregation Beth Israel. A Hindu prayer is scheduled for Sept. 17.

"All that diversity is fine, but that's not the point," Gold said. "I haven't gotten a note inviting me to do a secular invocation."

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