The Pismo Beach City Council will no longer start its meetings with a prayer, city officials said Wednesday, announcing the settlement of a lawsuit challenging the practice.
If approved by a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge, the agreement would settle a lawsuit brought against the city in November by the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit, and a local member of Atheists United San Luis Obispo.
The suit asked the city to eliminate its unpaid chaplain position and discontinue the practice of having prayers before council meetings.
“We’re getting everything we asked for,” Atheists United board member David Leidner said Wednesday morning.
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“I think what it means first and foremost is we have a government that is welcoming to all of its citizens,” he added. “And it also means that we have protected the separation between church and state in our county.”
Leidner said an opening prayer was not held at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting — a notable change, since the invocation had often been given by the city’s official chaplain, the Rev. Paul E. Jones.
“They just went into the Pledge of Allegiance,” Leidner said.
In a statement, Pismo Beach city attorney David Fleishman said the city denied liability, “but in keeping with the city’s goal of carefully managing taxpayer funds, the City Council determined that it would not be a prudent use of public monies to contest the suit through trial.”
Reached by phone at home, Jones declined to comment and referred all questions to the city attorney.
The council passed a policy in 2003 that prohibited invocations that were sectarian, complying with a Court of Appeals ruling that held prayers couldn’t include sectarian deities, such as Jesus Christ. Two years later, it appointed Jones as its official chaplain.
The plaintiffs claimed that between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013, Christian clergymen delivered 123 of the 126 prayers. Jones had offered 112 of those.
Another plaintiff in the lawsuit is Dr. Sari Dworkin, a retired college educator and Pismo Beach psychologist who identifies herself as an atheist Jew.
According to the lawsuit, Dworkin had to attend meetings because of land-development issues and was “offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated” by the public prayers.
Two members of the Pismo Beach City Council — Mary Ann Reiss and Kris Vardas — were absent from Tuesday’s meeting. The council voted 3-0 in closed session to accept the agreement, according to Leidner.
The council agreed to pay each plaintiff $1 in nominal damages — $2 total — and attorney’s fees. Fleishman said the plaintiffs attorney’s fees totaled $47,500.
Leidner said the local group, which has about 300 members, would now turn its attention to whether any other local governments pray at their meetings.
“We oppose any prayer at a government meeting because it’s exclusionary to anyone who doesn’t share those particular beliefs, whatever they are,” he said.
Leidner said Judge Martin Tangeman still needs to review the settlement agreement.