Citing the constitutional separation of church and state, a local group has challenged the Pismo Beach City Council for allowing a religious invocation prior to the start of each meeting.
For years, the city has supported the practice of allowing a local pastor to speak at the podium, asking the audience to bow their heads and join in a “moment of prayer” and to give thanks to our “eternal God in Heaven,” prior to reciting the Pledge of Allegiance.
The San Luis Obispo chapter of Atheists United sent a letter to the council in mid-May, claiming that such invocations were not only exclusionary to non-religious people, but a violation of law. Members of the organization spoke before the council on the issue at the June 5 meeting, repeating their request. As of press time, neither the council nor the city attorney had responded to their concerns.
Local Atheist United board member Kurt Horner told New Times that open invocations at government-sanctioned meetings are indeed legal, and in fact held in meetings at levels throughout government, but that they must be all-inclusive, and not differentiate between one person’s God and another’s.
The group points to numerous occasions where pastors have referenced “the baby … born so long ago in Bethlehem’s manger,” “Christ our Lord,” and specific references to “Scripture.”
“This is explicitly Christian language,” Horner said. “It’s absolutely fine for someone to say the prayer privately or even in public comment at a meeting, but it’s not OK for the council to be setting it up.”
Dr. Paul Jones, a local pastor who’s been giving the invocation at Pismo Beach for about six years, told New Times he would have to refer questions about the legality of the practice to the city. City Attorney David Fleishman didn’t return requests for comment.
Jones did, however, offer a suggestion: “For 235 years, every [U.S.] Senate meeting and House of Representatives meeting has opened with an invocation. … It would seem if the United Atheists were so concerned, they would close down the chaplain at the House and the Senate, then go to me in third place, if they were interested in effectiveness.”
“Well, that was a great argument for slavery a hundred years ago, too,” Horner said in response. “They’re basically making comments that it is the faith of the community that gives the council its power, and that’s way out of line.”
Jones said the local organization’s letter and subsequent appearances at the meetings were the first concerns he had heard from members of the public.
Pismo Beach Mayor Shelly Higginbotham could not be reached for comment as of press time.
The cities of Arroyo Grande, Atascadero, and Paso Robles also hold invocations prior to council meetings.
The group said in its letter that it remains hopeful an “acceptable” solution can be reached, but that it is “considering future action” if the city doesn’t change its practice. Horner couldn’t provide any further details on what action the group is considering.