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Foundation questions legality of City Council prayer

POSTED May 3, 2014 12:09 a.m.

When the Turlock City Council opted to install the words “In God We Trust” within the Council Chambers at City Hall, the attention of the nation’s largest freethinkers association, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, was quickly gained.

Having members attend the Turlock City Council meeting to protest the decision as part of their efforts to keep religion and government separate, the Freedom from Religion Foundation gave a warning to the council members should they move ahead with the decision to install “In God We Trust” above the Council dais, saying the city could be sued for violation of the U.S. Constitution. Additionally, the foundation has accused the City of Turlock of only allowing Protestant Christian prayers prior to council meetings – an accusation that Turlock City Manager Roy Wasden says is incorrect.

“The Freedom from Religion folks do not have their facts correct. We do not limit invocations, before the council meetings to Christian faiths,” said Wasden. “We have had non-Christian faiths offer prayers. We will schedule whoever volunteers for the pre-meeting prayer.”

In a recent visit to California State University, Stanislaus, Freedom from Religion Foundation Vice President and former minister Dan Barker spoke extensively on the various lawsuits pursued by the organization to keep religion separate of government, whether on a local, state or federal level. Noting about 15 active cases, the foundation has taken legal action against groups such as the Internal Revenue Service, public education institutions, and various cities across the nation, including Pismo Beach where the City Council recently voted in April to stop all prayers before meetings and eliminate the city’s chaplain position after reaching a settlement with the Freedom from Religion Foundation.

“Pismo Beach City Council had a full time chaplain, not just a prayer before the meeting,” said Barker during his visit to CSU Stanislaus about the Pismo Beach case. “The chaplain would stand at the podium, and begin preaching…After a long process and having complaints ignored, we sued in a state court, making them realize that we meant business, and they were in fact violating the California Constitution. Eventually, the City Council decided to settle, and voted to stop all prayers at public meetings in Pismo Beach, which is a significant victory.”

Recalling his experience protesting the Turlock City Council’s decision to allow prayer before public meetings and installing the words “In God We Trust,” Stanislaus Humanists member David Diskin also viewed the Pismo Beach settlement and vote as a success, while urging Turlock residents to stand up for constitutional rights while being “watchdogs of the community.”

“We may not have been successful in Turlock in 2009 with our efforts and threats of a lawsuit, but I challenge this community to be done with sitting down and letting them be completely in control of what should be a perfectly equal government,” said Diskin. “Not favoring one or any religion.”

According to Wasden, in 2009, research showed placing the sign “In God We Trust” by Council direction was a legal action within the purview of the City Council.

To learn more about the Freedom from Religion Foundation and their legal actions, visit www.ffrf.org.

 

 

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