Prayers & invocations in U.S. municipal & county council meetings
Guiding principles. 1983: SCOTUS
decision. 1999: Events in Burbank, CA
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:
Individuals are guaranteed almost complete freedom of religious expression.
Government and their agencies (including public schools, council meetings, etc):
May not recognize one religious faith as more valid than any other faith or secularism.
May not promote religion above secularism.
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.
These criteria are continuously in a state of creative tension. Americans are
divided on this aspect of religion:
Many non-Christians and secularists are opposed to prayer,
particularly if it contains Christian themes.
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
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."
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.
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,
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
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:
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
In 2002-SEP-9, Division Two of
the Court of Appeal upheld the ruling. 4 Judge Doi
"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
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
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.
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Religion Today news summary, 1999-MAR-19
"Rubin v. City of Burbank," 02 S.O.S. 4765. The Jewish Defense
League has published a copy of the decision at:
Kenneth Ofgang, "C.A. Says Burbank Council Invocation Violates
Establishment Clause," Metropolitan News-Enterprise, 2002-SEP-10, at:
http://www.metnews.com/articles/rubi091002.htm ("C.A." refers to
the Court of Appeal, not to California)
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:
Probably a reference to the passage in Matthew 6 that commands worshipers
of Jehovah to pray by themselves in isolation from others.