Fresno City Council Under Fire ... For Praying

February 11, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Fresno's City Council is coming under fire for praying before its meetings. A group of non-believers claims the prayers are unconstitutional and they're threatening to sue the city. But Council members are defiant and vowing to fight.The entire City Council bowed their heads Thursday morning as the pastor of the Calvary Worship Center in East Central Fresno gave the opening invocation, a tradition going back decades.

"We're grateful to you, Oh Lord, for your blessings on our city," prayed Pastor Roy Lee, "in the name of our wonderful Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen."

The calm moment in Council chambers is drawing an angry response from atheists and agnostics. They claim the weekly references to Jesus Christ are the equivalent of the City Council endorsing Christianity, and they're offended.

"Would it offend you if they always invoked Shiva as the only way to salvation?" asked Mark Boyd of the Central Valley Alliance of Atheists & Skeptics. "Would it offend you if they said there is no god but Allah?"

There have been legal challenges to prayer at government functions and ABC30 Legal Analyst Tony Capozzi said the Supreme Court has been clear in its response.

"The fact that they invoked Jesus Christ doesn't mean they're promoting a religion," he said.

But Capozzi said the Council has to walk a fine line, making sure it invites members of different faiths to give the invocation.

The atheist group said it's nearly impossible to represent all faiths, as well as people without faith.

"There are hundreds of religions here," said Boyd. "They might make the circuit in 10 years or so."

Council members said they've tried to be inclusive and they're prepared to fight to keep the opening prayers.

"We're absolutely appropriate," said Council President Larry Westerlund. "We're absolutely right. And I see no changes."

The atheist group said the American Civil Liberties Union might take up their cause if things don't change soon.

The city attorney's office is preparing for a possible legal fight -- one they're confident they'll win.


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