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Religious Tolerance logo

Prayers & invocations in U.S. municipal & county council meetings

Guiding principles. 1983: SCOTUS
decision. 1999: Events in Burbank, CA

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The guiding principles:

The authors of the U.S. Constitution were concerned about the potential power of religious institutions to generate conflict, if they were linked in any way with the government. At the time that the Constitution was written, Europe was enjoying their first period of relative peace following many decades of intra-religious warfare that had caused the deaths of many millions of people. The authors of the Bill of Rights wrote the Establishment Clause into the First Amendment that forbids any establishment of religion by the federal government. Further amendments to the Constitution, and its interpretations by the courts, led to the concept of separation of church and state at the federal, state, and municipal levels of government.

The guiding principles are that:

bulletIndividuals are guaranteed almost complete freedom of religious expression.

bullet Government and their agencies (including public schools, council meetings, etc):
bulletMay not recognize one religious faith as more valid than any other faith or secularism.

bulletMay not promote religion above secularism.

bullet May not promote secularism above religion.

Some historians have attributed the strength of religious institutions in the U.S., and the relative peace among faith groups, to this separation principle.

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These criteria are continuously in a state of creative tension. Americans are divided on this aspect of religion:

bulletMany Christian Americans feel that prayer forms part of their religious heritage. They want student Christian prayers to be scheduled in public school classrooms, their school board to pray a Christian prayer before its meetings, their town or city councils to open meetings with a Christian prayer, etc.

bulletMany non-Christians and secularists are opposed to prayer, particularly if it contains Christian themes.

bullet Some individuals of all religions, and of no organized religion, feel that a wall of separation must be maintained between religion and the government and its agencies; they regard this factor as outweighing any personal religious considerations.

Current precedents and court decisions appear to have reached a compromise in he matter of invocations before government bodies. The consensus is that such invocations do not constitute private speech, which is fully protected. They seem to agree that it is acceptable to mention "God" in generic prayers recited during invocations. But it is not permissible to mention a specific God or religion by name. So one can appeal for the protection of "God" in the generic sense. But one is not permitted to mention the name of Yahweh, Jesus, Krishna, Diana, or any of the thousands of other Gods, Goddesses and God-men who have been worshiped by followers of different religions. This would seem to violate the third principle listed above: the promotion of religion above secularism. But it appears that the courts and legislative bodies do not consider this to have a significantly serious impact to warrant being declared unconstitutional. Perhaps in the future, when the percentage of American adults who do not believe in the existence of a supreme deity increases, this point will become more critical.

The First Amendment "giveth," because it guarantees almost uninhibited personal religious freedom. But the First Amendment also "taketh away:" It requires governments, including municipalities and Boards of Education, to remain religiously neutral; they may not promote either a religious or a secular way of life.

One point of confusion has arisen over Islam. As noted above, a reference to "God" is OK but to Jesus Christ or Jesus or Christ is not because the latter three identify a specific deity by name or title. "Allah" is simply the word in Arabic that is equivalent to "God" in English. "Allah" is neither a name or title. Christians whose native language is Arabic use "Allah" where an English person would say "God." Thus a government agency including a military chaplain, can refer to "Allah" in a prayer but not to "Jesus."

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1983 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court:

Apparently, none of the many religion cases decided before the 21st century by the U.S. Supreme Court involved prayer at a meeting of a municipal council.

However, one case refers to a state legislative body: Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783 (1983). The court decided that the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the Establishment Clause by hiring a chaplain to lead a daily prayer. The court ruling concluded that:

"The content of the prayer is not of concern to judges where, as here, there is no indication that the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief. That being so, it is not for us to embark on a sensitive evaluation or to parse the content of a particular prayer."

The Supreme Court noted in a footnote to its ruling that the chaplain of the Nebraska Legislature had ceased mentioning Jesus during his prayer after having received a complaint from a Jewish legislator.

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1999: Prayers at the Burbank, CA, municipal council meetings:

The laws that govern prayers before municipal council meetings also govern prayers at public school graduations, public school sports events, etc. Perhaps the closest comparison in a school system to a council invocation would be prayers before Board of Education meetings. In 1999, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of appeals ruled that the Board of Education in Cleveland, OH, cannot pray before their meetings. They ruled that prayers are an illegal endorsement of religion.  1

Since 1953, Burbank council meetings had been opened with an invocation, usually delivered by a member of the Burbank Ministerial Association. The group is mostly Christian, and has no members from Baha'i faith, Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam. In 1999-NOV, Irv Rubin, the late leader of the Jewish Defense League, joined a number of other plaintiffs to launch a lawsuit against the City of Burbank, CA. 2 He was distressed to hear a member of the Mormon church say during an invocation before a municipal meeting:

"We are grateful heavenly Father for all that thou has poured out on us and we express our gratitude and our love in the name of Jesus Christ."  3

The Superior Court of Los Angeles ruled that sectarian invocations of this type violated the principle of separation of church and state.

In 2002-SEP-9, Division Two of the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling. 4 Judge Doi Todd wrote:

"In light of the fact that the legislative invocation given at the Burbank City Council meeting took place on government property, was authorized by the long standing policy of the city council, was part of the official agenda of the council meeting, and was for the purpose of calling for spiritual assistance in the work of the legislative body, we are satisfied that it was not 'private speech.' ...[A]n objective observer familiar with the City's policy and implementation would likely perceive that the invocation carried the City's seal of approval. As such those who provide legislative invocations at the Burbank City Council meetings are subject to the requirement that the prayers should comport with the First Amendment."

Amicus Curia briefs supporting the invocation were filed by Fundamentalist Christian group, the American Center for Law and Justice and by 34 other California cities. A brief from the Council for Secular Humanism's opposed the invocation.

Roger Diamond, attorney for the plaintiffs, shouted "praise the Lord!" when interviewed by a Reuters reporter. He said that his clients were not "anti-religion." However, they believed that prayer belonged in churches, temples and mosques and not in government. He said that the invocation cited in the court case:

"...went overboard....This was a prayer in the name of Jesus. That's what crossed the line...Jesus complained (in the Bible 5) about people praying in public when its really meant to be a private activity. I believe, as Jesus said, that politicians do this because they are hypocrites and they want to create the impression that what they are doing is infallible." 6

Mayor David Laurell said: "I think we need to take this ruling to the highest court of the land. It has already had statewide impact and could have nationwide impact." In response to the court ruling, at least five Orange County cities - Buena Park, Fullerton, Laguna Niguel, La Palma, and San Clemente have modified their policies concerning invocations.

Pastor Ron Sukut of Cornerstone Community Church in San Clemente refused to give an invocation at the council meeting of 2003-JAN-8 because he was told that he could not mention Jesus by name. He said:

"This is indicative of how confused we are, spiritually speaking, about what God is. I think we have a constitutional right to choose which God we're praying to. Taking that right away is what's unconstitutional.... I'm all for invocations that are all-inclusive, but I don't want me or anybody else to tell people that it has to be that way.

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This topic continues on in the next essay

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Religion Today news summary, 1999-MAR-19
  2. "Rubin v. City of Burbank," 02 S.O.S. 4765. The Jewish Defense League has published a copy of the decision at:
  3. Kenneth Ofgang, "C.A. Says Burbank Council Invocation Violates Establishment Clause," Metropolitan News-Enterprise, 2002-SEP-10, at: ("C.A." refers to the Court of Appeal, not to California)
  4. Catrine Johansson, "City councils ban Jesus from prayer: Officials react to a court ruling limiting invocations to the mention of God," The Orange County Register, 2003-JAN-12, at:
  5. Probably a reference to the passage in Matthew 6 that commands worshipers of Jehovah to pray by themselves in isolation from others.
  6. Reuters news item, 2002-SEP-9. Placed online at at:

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Copyright © 2003 to 2013 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Original publishing date: 2003-JAN-14
Latest update: 2013-AUG-13
Author: B.A. Robinson
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