California City Under Fire From Atheists for Allowing Prayers Before Council Meetings

Chico, California, sealCHICO, Cal. – Two secularist organizations are working together to end legislative prayer before city council meetings in a northern California municipality.

For years, Chico city council members have invited local religious leaders from various faiths to lead invocations prior to official city council gatherings. For instance, the agenda for an upcoming meeting this week shows that the pastor of Matthew’s Café Community Church will be giving a prayer prior to the Pledge of Allegiance.

However, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF)—a Wisconsin-based, church-state separatist group—and the Butte County Coalition of Reason (BCCR)—a local atheist organization—are pushing to have the prayer tradition stopped. After learning of the regular invocations, an FFRF attorney sent a letter on June 27th to the Chico mayor, asserting that the prayers “are a repudiation of our secular history,” and that the “best solution is for the Council to drop these prayers altogether.”

“The solution is simple: discontinue official, government prayers at your meetings,” the FFRF letter continues. “We urge you to concentrate on civil matters and leave religion to the private conscience of each individual. If government meetings must show reverence, let it be for our secular and godless Constitution, which enshrines the greatest American invention—the separation of state and church.”

Similarly, BCCR published a press release last month, condemning the city council’s prayer practice, and saying it was a “shock” that council members incorporate the invocations into their meetings. BCCR also created an online petition, addressed to Chico’s mayor and written by BCCR coordinator George Gold.

“I have … observed,” Gold writes in the petition, “that the Butte County Board of Supervisors does not have any such invocation. They have a moment of silence at the beginning of each meeting so that ALL in the audience can take a moment to focus on whatever their belief system might be or, one can just meditate on the silence. Mr. Mayor, please consider our community’s request, signed by a variety of religious, spiritual, and secular Chico residents, to cease invocations and instead offer a moment of silence or nothing at all.”

As of late Saturday, the petition had received just over 230 signatures.

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Meanwhile, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF)—a nationwide religious liberties organization—announced in a Friday statement that they sent a legal memo to Chico city officials last week, urging council members not to be bullied into ending their meeting prayers. The 11-page ADF letter condemns the FFRF and BCCR for leading “a coordinated effort to attack” the city’s “historic and cherished tradition” of legislative prayer.

“There is simply no question,” the memo states, “that a public deliberative body may open its meetings with an invocation, even one that includes a prayer. Public prayer has been an essential part of our heritage since before this nation’s founding, and our Constitution has always protected the activity. Contrary to some recent claims, such prayer can also include distinctly Christian references without running afoul of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.”

In the Friday statement, ADF Senior Counsel David Cortman argued that public, legislative prayer has always been—and, consequently, should always be—a fully legal component of U.S. government.

“Americans today should be as free as the founders were to pray,” Cortman stated. “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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