While the issue of public prayer plays out in the nation’s highest court, one group in California is seeking to reinforce the wall of separation between church and state on its own.
A religious watchdog group has joined forces with residents and a local atheist organization in order to file suit against the City of Pismo Beach. Their target? The city’s permitting of public prayers and the city’s official chaplain, Dr. Paul Jones.
“What we’re looking for is a judge to tell them to knock it off,” said David Leidner, a spokesman for Atheists United San Luis Obispo, to the San Luis Obispo Tribune. “We would like to establish a state precedent.”
The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed suit in the San Luis Obispo Superior Court on Friday, November 1. The lawsuit asks city leaders to eliminate the official chaplain position and cease all prayers at council meetings.
According to Pismo Beach City Attorney David Fleishman, the city is permitted to have an official chaplain so long as he or she does not actively promote one religion over another.
In 2003, the city approved a policy that prohibited prayers that were sectarian in nature in order to comply with a Court of Appeals ruling of the same nature. Nonetheless, the city has maintained its employment of an official chaplain as well as holding non-sectarian invocations prior to public meetings.
Two years later, Jones was appointed to the unpaid position.
According to the New Times SLO, “During the 2005 council meeting that created the city chaplain position, former city manager Kevin Rice warned against the ‘undetermined legal risk’ the city was assuming by creating the position in ‘California’s litigious climate.’”
The FFRF is alleging that Jones explicitly advanced the tenants of Christianity, causing non-Christians to feel (as the suit puts it) as if they are “outsiders at Council meetings, are unrepresented in their government and are not full citizens.”
“With 20 percent of the adult population today identifying as nonreligious, at least a fifth of the population is routinely excluded and offended by official prayer conducted by the city,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF foundation co-president, said in a news release. “Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work.”
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has been in the limelight as of late. This week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for Town of Greece v. Galloway, a case that will likely determine the constitutionality of hosting prayer in public town meetings.
The FFRF is a Wisconsin-based nonprofit that “works to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism, and to promote the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.”
Dr. Sari Dworkin, Pismo Beach resident and self-described “atheist Jew,” joined the FFRF in the suit.
View the FFRF lawsuit here or below: