PISMO BEACH, Calif. — Officials in a California city have agreed to end their practice of presenting prayers at public meetings in order to settle a lawsuit with a local atheist organization.
City officials in Pismo Beach state that they decided to settle the matter because they did not want to spend taxpayer money to fight the legal battle. The announced their decision on Wednesday.
As previously reported, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a complaint against the city in November, asserting that the prayers offered regularly by Pismo Beach chaplain Paul Jones promote Christianity to residents. The organization stated that Jones’ prayers often morph into sermonettes in a manner that appears to “advance and proselytize for Christianity.”
“The Scriptures teach us, saying, ‘Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord,’” Jones is quoted as declaring in one prayer. “Too long, we have neglected Your word and ignored Your laws. We have tried to solve our problems without reference to You. Your word is so clear, and is so simple. For Your Word says: ‘Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach and an embarrassment to any people.’ And so we confess to You our sins, and ask that we as a nation and as individuals may experience a moral and a spiritual restoration.”
Dr. Sari Dworkin, one of the complainants in the lawsuit, alerted FFRF to Jones’ prayers. Dworkin, an atheistic Jew, stated that the invocations “cause her to feel offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated about participating in her own government.” Therefore, FFRF asked the prayers be discontinued and that the position of chaplain also be eliminated.
On Wednesday, the Pismo Beach City Counsel agreed to do both, as well as to pay at least $4500 in attorney’s fees. Attorney David Fleishman wrote in a statement that while the city did not admit to any wrongdoing, it did not want to spend the money to fight.
“[I]n 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,” he said.
The decision comes at a time when the United States Supreme Court is deliberating whether prayers primarily in Jesus’ name are permissible in municipalities that are predominantly Christian or Catholic.
As previously reported, the court accepted the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway last May, a legal challenge that centers on the invocations that are offered at town hall meetings in Greece, New York, just outside of Rochester. Local residents Susan Galloway and Linda Stephens are contending in the suit that the prayers made them feel “marginalized” as they are not followers of the Christian faith. Galloway is Jewish and Stephens is an atheist.
“Community members should have the freedom to pray without being censored,” stated Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel David Cortman, who is representing the city in court. “Opening meetings with prayer is a cherished freedom that the authors of the Constitution practiced. Americans shouldn’t be forced to forfeit this freedom just to appease someone who claims to be offended by hearing a prayer.”