Despite dissent from several members of the local faith-based community, the Arroyo Grande City Council held its final invocation on Tuesday, following through on its earlier decision to instead perform a “moment of reflection” at the start of meetings.
The council voted 3-2 on Tuesday to change all invocations on future agendas to a moment of silence or reflection, with council members Tim Brown and Barbara Harmon dissenting.
The council decided at its Dec. 9 meeting to look into changing the invocation policy, in response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the constitutionality of beginning city council meetings with a prayer as long as no faiths were discriminated against in choosing who would perform the invocation.
Concerns were raised at that meeting that the existing Arroyo Grande policy excluded groups such as Atheists United from performing the invocation, which could put the city at risk for lawsuits, similar to the successful one against Pismo Beach by the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the local Atheists United chapter.
The December decision to pursue moments of reflection rather than an invocation prompted some backlash from the faith-based community, several members of which attended Tuesday’s meeting to urge the council to reconsider.
“I say we need God now, and prayer now more than we ever have,” said Wayne Riddering, an associate pastor at Peace Lutheran Church in Arroyo Grande. “Our forefathers were not hesitant to pray publicly, and they were not afraid that public prayer would violate the separation of state. Are we smarter than Washington, Adams or Lincoln? I think not.”
Many of the speakers cited the city’s 104-year tradition of reciting a prayer before meetings, and asked for more time for discussion on the matter.
Representatives of Atheists United, such as board member David Leidner, were also at the meeting to support the original decision.
Leidner said ending invocations was “the fairest and most pragmatic choice,” because it would reduce city staff work in having to organize the list of invocation speakers, as well as avoiding any discomfort for individuals that do not subscribe to certain religions.
“Thanks again for the decision we hope you will make — the most practical and reasonable choice in this matter — to end invocations,” he said.
After more than an hour of discussion, the council decided to officially begin all future meetings with a moment of reflection, with Mayor Jim Hill casting the deciding vote.
“I believe the best option in this case is to have a moment of reflection at the beginning of meetings,” Hill said. “I do respect the discussion we’ve had tonight. I respect the offers we’ve had tonight from the faith-based community to all members of the public. That reaching out will hopefully continue, regardless of what the council does tonight.”
The City Council’s final invocation was led by Pastor Ron Dee of the Harvest Bible Fellowship, who also spoke out at the meeting against switching to a moment of reflection.