Pismo should rethink policy on prayer

The debate over the legality of prayer at public meetings — which will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court today — also faces the city of Pismo Beach, where a lawsuit has been filed over the city’s practice of beginning each council meeting with a prayer.

The allegations contained in the lawsuit aren’t new: Last year, Atheists United asked Pismo Beach officials to immediately stop using “explicitly Christian turns of phrase” during invocations.

Pismo Beach didn’t change its practice, and it now faces a lawsuit that asks the city to eliminate its chaplain position and discontinue prayers at the beginning of council meetings. The suit alleges that the meeting prayers “advance and proselytize for Christianity.”

We don’t believe for a minute that the city of Pismo Beach is trying to foist Christianity on its residents when it opens City Council meetings with a prayer. But if the practice of public prayer makes some members of the audience feel uncomfortable and unwelcome, why does the city insist on continuing it?

Granted, the city believes it’s doing nothing wrong because it has a policy against prayers that specifically reference Jesus Christ or other sectarian deities. And the city attorney says that Pismo Beach’s chaplain, the Rev. Paul E. Jones, has been very good about adhering to that.

Yet the lawsuit contains numerous examples of prayers offered at council meetings that contain “Christian honorifics” such as “Our Eternal God,” “Christ our Lord,” and “Your Son and our Savior.”

Even without such references, the fact that the invocation is almost always delivered by a Christian clergyman would tend to make people of other faiths, as well as nonbelievers, feel excluded.

On this point, the numbers speak for themselves: According to the suit, over a nearly six-year period, there have been 126 opening prayers, and all but three were delivered by Christian clergymen.

We understand that prayer at public meetings has a long tradition in this nation. Indeed, it’s often pointed out that the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives begin daily sessions with a prayer. But as the commentary on today’s Voices page notes, members of the public are there to observe — they aren’t there to give testimony or to plead their case before decision makers.

We aren’t saying that prayer has no place in council chambers; if individuals want to offer their own prayers, let them do so silently.

But lawsuit or no lawsuit, the Pismo Beach City Council should reconsider its policy on public prayer at council meetings. Rather than wrestling with ways to make the invocations meet the letter of the law, we strongly urge the council to discontinue the spoken invocations.