Atheists criticize prayers said at Pismo Beach council meetings

A local atheist group has asked Pismo Beach officials to immediately stop using what the organization calls “explicitly Christian turns of phrase” during invocations at City Council meetings.

Atheists United of San Luis Obispo said in a news release that it objects to the content and intent of the invocations, which are primarily given by longtime Pismo Beach resident and city chaplain Paul Jones.

The organization maintains that Jones “frequently violates laws about invocations at government functions by making explicit references to Christianity,” including referring to Jesus Christ without mentioning him by name.

“Jones uses explicitly Christian turns of phrase such as ‘Our Lord and Savior’ and ‘Our Heavenly Father,’ ” which oversteps the restrictions the courts have allowed, according to Atheists United.

In response, Pismo Beach City Manager Kevin Rice said Tuesday that city officials believe Jones’ invocations are “proper, good and legal” and plan to continue them unless the council decides otherwise.

In 2003, Pismo Beach adopted a policy prohibiting invocations that are sectarian in nature to comply with a Court of Appeals ruling that held prayers wouldn’t include any sectarian deities such as Jesus Christ.

In 1983, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayers at government-sponsored meetings are legal as long as they’re generic.Jones, who earned a doctor of theology degree in 1950 and has an honorary doctor of divinity degree, was appointed Pismo Beach’s chaplain — an unpaid position — in March 2005.

Jones declined to comment on the specific phrases cited by Atheists United. He did, though, note that both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have paid chaplains. Sessions are opened with a nondenominational prayer by a chaplain or guest member of the clergy.

“If the gentlemen in Atheists United are so concerned, let them first close down the chaplain of the Senate, then the House of Representatives, and then come back to the Pismo Beach City Council,” Jones said. “I have people tell me all the time what the prayers mean to them.”

Atheists United said it is hopeful “an acceptable resolution” can be reached with the city but will consider further action should Pismo Beach not respond to its request.

The organization challenged another local city government this year.

In March, it questioned the constitutionality of San Luis Obispo’s decision to not charge for parking downtown until church services have concluded on Sunday mornings. San Luis Obispo officials have maintained the new parking ordinance is within the law.

In April, the Pismo Beach council considered a request by a local church to provide free parking Sunday mornings at a nearby city lot and referred some questions to its parking advisory committee.

That committee has recommended that paid parking permits not be enforced on Sundays until 1 p.m. in one parking lot on Dolliver Street between Main Street and Pismo Avenue, said Community Development Director Jon Biggs.

The City Council will consider the recommendation in August.