It’s hard to admit, but I’ve been having religious thoughts lately. Even I find myself pondering life’s biggest moral dilemmas sometimes—usually, how I’ve come up on the immoral side of basically every last one of them. Sloth, greed, gluttony, envy—you name it, I’ve done it.
When it comes to top-notch trickery, though, I’m truly impressed/horrified by Pismo Beach City Chaplain Dr. Paul Jones. But Shredder, you’ll say, why are you picking on a pleasant, devout old man whose only crime is lovin’ him some Jesus? First of all, picking on people is my occupation. Secondly, none of your damn business. Thirdly, because he deserves it.
For more than eight years now, Jones has proudly pinned on his official city of Pismo Beach name tag, walked up to the podium, and delivered prayers (at City Council meetings) that I find to be deeply unconstitutional. Even worse, they warp and distort history.
It would be one thing if his prayers were unabashedly Christian, because at least it would all be obvious. Jones is affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel, an evangelistic, Pentecostal Christian church that emphasizes stuff like faith healings and speaking in tongues. Their official website states that “Hell is the place of darkness, deep sorrow, and unquenchable fire” for “all who reject Christ as the Savior.” Fun stuff.
But Jones, for all his failings, isn’t dumb. He has to have read, or at least skimmed, the California Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Marsh v. Chambers decision. Because he’s appropriated the most surface-level veneer of political correctness you could imagine.
Worried about being sued? Jones can help! How else could you possibly explain how, in 112 prayers delivered over a five-year span, Dr. Jones could preach in a deeply divisive, Christian manner but somehow fail to mention “Jesus” or “Christ” a single time? I couldn’t find any such references in my search of the texts of all his prayers. It’s like a game of 20 Questions, and he’s trying to get us to guess the person he’s talking about.
“Did he walk on water?”
“You’re getting warmer … .”
Want some examples? Here are some greatest hits from Jones’ preaching:
From the Dec. 15, 2009, City Council meeting: “But the babe that was born in Bethlehem’s manger will yet remain … . For His name is above all other names, His reign is above all other rulers, and His truth is above all other.”
No names, though. So it’s not technically putting one religion above any others, right?
From the April 6, 2009, meeting: “The moral compass of the Holy Scriptures has been largely laid aside.”
This, apparently, has degraded public morality down to Miley Cyrus levels.
From the Aug. 5, 2008, meeting: “Our Heavenly Father, James Madison was a principal author of the United States Constitution ... It was he who said, ‘We have staked the whole future of American civilization not upon the power of government, far from it, we have staked the future upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.’”
Actually, that one is doubly offensive. First of all, it actively insults our nation’s separation of church and state at a city council meeting. Secondly, Madison never said anything like that. Not even close. Numerous actual historians have debunked the veracity of that quote—fabricated by creepy pseudo-historian David Barton.
From all of this hedging, it looks as if Jones’ main takeaway from Marsh v. Chambers—a Supreme Court decision that allowed invocations in governmental settings, but with a number of restrictions—would be “just don’t say ‘Jesus’ or ‘Christ’ and you’ll be golden.”
Those pesky other parts of the decision? You know, the one that forbids public prayers that “proselytize or advance any one faith, or to disparage any other, faith or belief”? Or the one that says “sectarian” invocations are a no-go and that you can only address the body of legislators present? Who needs those?
Well, it appears the “just don’t say Jesus” tactic has finally come back to bite Pismo Beach in the butt. That butt-bite was delivered in the form of a whopper lawsuit filed in SLO County Superior Court on Nov. 1 by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which took 252 pages to crack down on Pismo Beach, its City Council, Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, and Jones.
As it turns out, not mentioning the J-Man is kind of a moot point if your mini-sermons are super-sectarian, promote the heck out of your brand of Christianity, and disparage beliefs that don’t match your own.
Funnily enough, Jones’ fill-in, local pastor Dr. Paul Toms apparently didn’t get the “don’t say Jesus” memo. In fact, Toms specifically called upon “Christ, our Lord” in several of his 10 prayers. Way to give it away.
Another thing that tickles my funny bone: Pismo Beach knew this lawsuit was coming. They had an inkling, anyway. The city received numerous letters and public comments from individuals and organization who were offended by Jones, and nobody listened. Hell, they didn’t even listen to their own people.
When Pismo was creating Jones’ city chaplain position, their city manager at the time, Kevin Rice, did the polite-cough version of steering someone away from a course of action. He called it “undetermined legal risk,” which should have been an obvious red flag, but as we’ve seen, the Pismo folks aren’t good with guessing games.
I have a humble suggestion for future invocations at Pismo Beach City Council meetings: Ask the man upstairs to make this lawsuit vanish. At the very least, God should be able to stem the flow of taxpayer dollars due to this collective folly.
Whatever you do, though, don’t say Jesus Christ. Wait. Crap. Let me start over.
The Shredder has a halo around here somewhere. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.