Religious watchdog group sues Pismo Beach over chaplain's prayers

Working with a local atheist group, a religious watchdog group has sued Pismo Beach, saying the city’s chaplain illegally promotes Christianity during invocations he offers before council meetings.

In the suit, filed Friday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, the Freedom From Religion Foundation asks that the city eliminate its chaplain position and discontinue the practice of having prayers before council meetings.

“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.

But Pismo Beach city attorney David Fleishman said the city can have a chaplain as long as that person does not actively promote one religion. And the Rev. Paul E. Jones — the city’s official chaplain, who offers most of the invocations — has been careful to not be overly heavy-handed about promoting Christianity, Fleishman said.

“To my recollection, Dr. Jones has been very good about that through the years,” Fleishman said.

While the council passed a policy in 2003 that prohibited invocations that were sectarian — complying with a Courts of Appeal ruling that held prayers couldn’t include sectarian deities, such as Jesus Christ — two years later it hired Jones as its official chaplain.

“I think a significant number of cities have chaplains,” Fleishman said. But most, he added, were assigned to police departments to help, among other things, crime victims and their families. “That’s a very common thing,” he said.

It’s less common to have a chaplain offer invocations before meetings.

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 due to land development issues and was “offended, disenfranchised and intimidated” by the public prayers.

The plaintiffs claim that between Jan. 1, 2008, and Oct. 15, 2013, Christian clergymen delivered 123 of the 126 prayers. Jones, who is affiliated with the Pentecostal Four Square Church, offered 112 of those.

In his invocations, the suit claims, Jones advanced and proselytized Christianity, signaling to non-Christians that they are “outsiders at Council meetings, are unrepresented in their government and are not full citizens.”

Leidner said those attending council meetings are asked to stand during the prayers.

“It’s not hard to see how that would alienate or intimidate somebody who doesn’t share those beliefs,” said Leidner, explaining that several Pismo Beach residents are offended by the prayers but afraid to object to them for fear of being ostracized. “We’re standing up for them.”

Fleishman said the city has had few complaints since Jones was named chaplain in 2005.

“I’m not aware of any significant controversy — until today,” he said.

He said Jones’ invocations typically last two to three minutes.

While the city ordinance forbids the mention of specific deities, the suit claims Jones has made several specific Christian references, including “Our Father in Heaven,” “Our Eternal God” and “God, Our Father.”

Several transcribed invocations appear in the lawsuit, along with a breakdown of language used.

“Conveniently, they film the City Council meetings and all of the prayers are on their website,” Leidner said.

Contacted by The Tribune, Jones referred questions to the city attorney. Mayor Shelly Higginbotham could not be reached Monday afternoon.

In July 2012, Jones told The Tribune his invocations have had a positive impact on meeting attendees.

“I have people tell me all the time what the prayers mean to them,” he said.

Jones, who earned a doctor of theology in 1950, was honored by the city in 2010 “for his 60 years of ordained service and for his outstanding integrity and devotion to serving his fellow man.”

His position as chaplain is unpaid.

The lawsuit comes as a similar case is being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court. In that case, which begins with oral arguments Wednesday, plaintiffs are challenging a Christian prayer by the town of Greece, N.Y. While that suit is invoking the U.S. Constitution, the local lawsuit invokes the state constitution’s No Preference and Establishment Clauses.

“We would like to establish a state precedent,” Leider said.