City council prayers prompt ACLU lawsuit threat

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — The National Center for Law & Policy has offered to represent the city of Escondido, Calif. pro bono if the American Civil Liberties Union follows through with a threat to sue over sectarian prayers.

The offer was made after the ACLU sent a demand letter to city officials over the summer saying the existing policy is unfairly promoting Christianity.

In its June 28 letter, the ACLU alleged that Escondido's "moment of reflection" violates the federal Establishment Clause and the state constitution's No Preference and the Ban on Aid Religion Clause.

"The government has no business endorsing any religion," said David Blair-Loy, legal director of the San Diego ACLU. "Our Constitution protects freedom of conscience best by keeping government out of religion."

The ACLU said it began monitoring the prayers after receiving at least one complaint. It believes that any prayer specifically referencing Jesus, Lord or heavenly Father is solely associated with Christianity and in violation of the law.

Under existing policy, the calendar for the moments of reflection is maintained by a volunteer from a local church and is open to spiritual leaders from any religion or denomination. Those who present the meeting moments are asked to be inclusive and abstain from using any language affiliated with a specific denomination or religion.

City Attorney Jeffery R. Epp, in his response to the ACLU's demand letter, said that he was examining the language in the council's meeting agendas in regard to the complaint "as well as several other possible steps that can be taken to assure that the city of Escondido remains within the constitutional parameters on this topic."

Dean Broyles, chief counsel for the National Center, formerly known as the Western Center for Law & Policy, said he is confident the ACLU's demands are unfounded. Broyles sent city officials a detailed 10-page legal memorandum addressing the assertions of both groups while explaining the applicable legal principles and case law.

"We have a well-established and constitutionally permitted practice in America of solemnizing public governmental gatherings with prayer," he said in a letter to supporters. "The U.S. Supreme Court has determined that such invocations are perfectly legal. The First Amendment actually protects religion and religious practices—even in public. Government may certainly acknowledge and accommodate religion without violating the law. The essential right protected is freedom of religion, not freedom from religion."

Broyles went on to call the ACLU's legal interpretation of the matter "radical" and a "perversion of the First Amendment."

"If the freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion mean anything, they require that individual citizens offering public prayers must be free to pray according to the dictates of their conscience and must not be censored or coerced to only pray words approved by the ACLU or the government," he said.


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