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Council: Yes to prayer

In God We Trust to become part of mural on City Hall walls

Council: Yes to prayer

The Turlock City Council prays before the start of their Tuesday evening meeting, which was focused heavily on the issue of governmental prayer.


POSTED September 23, 2009 12:14 a.m.
The Turlock City Council opened their meeting Tuesday evening with an invocation — before the gavel struck to formally begin the proceedings.
The new tradition of holding an invocation before the official start of council meetings will continue, as the Turlock City Council unanimously adopted a controversial policy late last night to “solemnize proceedings of the Turlock City Council” by allowing for an invocation or prayer to be offered.
A crowd of more than 150 people, including Turlockers and those from as far away as Oakdale and Lodi, made the trip to Turlock City Hall on Tuesday to speak about the possible cessation of religious invocations before Turlock City Council meetings.
The Turlock City Council received a legal letter from the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation on Aug. 13 urging the city to cease holding religious invocations at the commencement of council meetings. The FFRF noted that the Turlock Council invocations are, “rarely, if ever, non-denominational,” as each prayer they reviewed ended with the phrase, “In Jesus’ name.”
Rebecca Kratz, FFRF staff attorney, argues in the letter that, “the prayerful practice at council meetings runs afoul of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution because it impermissibly advances Christianity.” She also states that the invocation “alienates any non-Christians and non-believers,” turning them to “political outsiders of their own community and government.”
Dan Blank, a self-described “chubby grey-haired guy that’s lived in Turlock more than 20 years,” originally came to the city council meeting just to simply support continuing the tradition of prayer, but after seeing the turnout he was driven to speak his mind regarding the practice of governmental prayer.
“By the time I got here I realized I couldn’t just continue to be part of the silent majority and hope that something good happened,” Blank said. “… If you believe in God you want that to be a part of your life and you want it to be part of your community.”
In agreement with the silent majority — as most of those who spoke on Tuesday lobbied for a moment of silence rather than a religious invocation — the council’s newly adopted policy will cause the invocation to continue, but to no longer be listed or recognized as an agenda item for the meeting. No one will be required to participate in any prayer that is offered.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, Co-President and Co-Founder of FFRF, took exception to the strategy of holding pre-meeting prayer. She said there is no court decision that says invocations held before governmental meetings are acceptable.
“They make it sound like this is tested law but it isn’t,” Gaylor said. “Everyone knows it’s part of the meeting; they have a whole resolution about it.”
Prayers will be voluntarily delivered, for no compensation, by “an eligible member of the clergy in the City of Turlock,” who will be selected on a rotating basis from all religious congregations with an established presence in the community of Turlock. Any questions as to the authenticity of a religious congregation will be determined by Internal Revenue Service non-profit designation.
Councilwoman Mary Jackson said that the city would make every effort to reach out to all members of Turlock religious communities, but many in the audience took exception to the plan.
Terry Jones, a resident of Turlock, argued that the number of beliefs found in the city is more diverse than can be found in the phone book — one source for finding speakers mentioned in the council’s adopted resolution. He also stated that the proposed resolution does not take atheists into account, since all invokers would be from a religion.
Susan Robinson, atheist and lifetime member of the Freedom From Region Foundation, argued that under the policy the council would be required to accept invocations from pagans, scientologists and even Satanists.
“It is the job of all American government, at all levels, to fairly and equally represent all of the people it serves,” Robinson said as she lobbied for a moment of silence. “This includes people who believe in your god, in multiple gods or goddesses, or no god at all.”
“Diversity for the sake of diversity is really ridiculous unless it really is about respecting people who have different views,” agreed Turlock Planning Commissioner Soraya Fregosi.
Under the policy, no speaker will be scheduled for consecutive meetings, or more than three council meetings in one year. The city will not conduct any prior review of the content of invocations, and the council will not express any preference for or against any faith or religious denomination.
Speakers will be advised to, “offer an invocation according to the dictates of (his or her) own conscience,” but to not exploit the prayer opportunity, “as an effort to convert others to the particular faith of the invocation speaker, nor to disparage any faith or belief different than that of the invocation speaker.”
While Gaylor agrees this policy is, “better than what they were doing,” she points out that court decisions — as interpreted by FFRF — disallow any sectarian prayer whatsoever, be it imams invoking Allah or rabbis invoking Yahweh. The adopted policy does not explicitly direct speakers to make their prayers non-sectarian.
Sergio Alvarado, a one-year resident of Turlock and a former atheist who has “come back to the Word of God,” was pleased by the decision, noting that “We (Turlock) weren’t called the City of God for nothing,” referencing the 1930s Ripley’s Believe It or Not finding that Turlock had the most churches per capita in the United States.
Vice Mayor Ted Howze regretted that the city had been forced to “waste time and resources” on the practice of governmental prayer due to the FFRF letter, and hoped that those who disagreed with the practice of invocations would accept the council decision and move on.
“If you’re an atheist I respect you,” Howze said. “But if you don’t believe in a god you should have a good time laughing at our foolishness for us who do.”
Later in the evening, the council unanimously agreed to move forward with plans to paint the words, “In God We Trust” on the wall behind the Turlock City Council dais in City Hall. A sub-committee comprised of Councilman Kurt Spycher — who will pay for “In God We Trust to be inscribed”  — and Mayor John Lazar will plan the artwork along with Turlock City Arts Commission Chair Dustin Soiseth.
In deference to several speakers who lobbied for “We The People,” rather than “In God We Trust,” a second wall will be painted with that phrase, and paid for by Howze. The artwork will likely include murals, which will be paid for by Jackson.
The phrase “In God We Trust,” a motto of the United States, is found on U.S. Currency, and has been found by the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals to be purely patriotic or ceremonial, and to “bear no true resemblance to a governmental sponsorship of a religious practice.”
But the FFRF isn’t convinced that the phrase should be allowable. The organization currently has a case in Wisconsin U.S. District Court, according to Gaylor, suing to stop the phrase from being engraved in the Washington, D.C., Capitol Visitor Center.
“What message is that, what possible purpose could that (In God We Trust) be but to send a message of exclusion to those who don’t believe?” Gaylor asked.
Gaylor said the FFRF would observe the implementation of Turlock’s plan and determine whether or not it believed the City of Turlock was violating any laws before any decision would be made regarding legal action.
To contact Alex Cantatore, e-mail acantatore@turlockjournal.com or call 634-9141 ext. 2005.

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