Supreme Court ruling on prayer won't affect Pismo Beach decision

clambert@thetribunenews.comMay 5, 2014 

Pismo Beach City Hall.

JOE JOHNSTON — jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

The U.S. Supreme Court decision on Monday that a town in upstate New York did not violate the U.S. Constitution by opening its public meetings with a prayer will have no impact on Pismo Beach’s recent decision to end invocations at public meetings.

Pismo Beach officials agreed to end its chaplain program — and to end all prayers before City Council meetings — to settle a lawsuit brought against the city last November.

The lawsuit was brought against Pismo Beach under the California Constitution, and so the U.S. Supreme Court decision does not impact the city in regard to this specific case, city attorney David Fleishman said.

The local lawsuit invoked the state Constitution’s No Preference and Establishment Clauses.

“It wouldn’t have changed the result in the litigation,” Fleishman said. “The (U.S. Supreme Court) decision is of interest to constitutional scholars but only of tangential interest to cases brought under the California Constitution.”

However, he added, if another city took a case to the California Supreme Court, and the court makes a ruling similar to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, then Pismo Beach might reconsider its stance on prayers.

The local lawsuit, filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation of Madison, Wis., and a member of Atheists United San Luis Obispo, asked that Pismo Beach eliminate its unpaid chaplain position and discontinue saying prayers before council meetings.

They maintained the city’s chaplain illegally promoted Christianity during his invocations.

The suit claimed that between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013, Christian clergymen delivered 123 of the 126 prayers, and that the Rev. Paul E. Jones — the city’s official chaplain — had offered 112 of those.

The council passed a policy in 2003 prohibiting invocations that were sectarian in nature, complying with a court ruling that held prayers couldn’t include specific deities, such as Jesus Christ. Two years later, the council appointed Jones as its official chaplain.

The Pismo Beach City Council voted 3-0 in closed session on April 15 (with two members absent) to accept the conditions and settle the lawsuit.

Reach Cynthia Lambert at 781-7929. Stay updated by following @SouthCountyBeat on Twitter.

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