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Prayer protest raises difficult questions

December 01, 1999

Prayers before government meetings: A refreshing spiritual boost for

citizens and city officials or a reckless assault on the United States

Constitution? The answer depends on who you ask.

A Jewish activist's visit to the City Council has raised that sticky

question in Burbank, where invocations by members of the city's religious

community have been a part of council meetings for as long as anyone can

remember. City officials have been quick to defend Burbank's prayer

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policy as constitutionally protected, but their arguments do little to

dissuade those who say that religion should have no role in the political

process.

In a passionate and accusatory five-minute speech during public

comments, Irv Rubin, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League,

charged the city with making a "Christian pageantry" of council meetings

by allowing Christian pastors deliver blatantly Christian prayers. In

doing so, the city is violating the establishment clause of the First

Amendment, which provides for the separation of church and state, he

said.

"I just don't think it has a place in city council," said Rubin, who

also objected to the singing of Silent Night by John Burroughs High

School students because of its repeated references to Jesus Christ.

Rubin, whose appearance clearly caught the council by surprise, said

he will seek a federal injunction to stop the prayers. An announced

candidate for the 24th District seat held by Assemblyman Brad Sherman

(D-Sherman Oaks), Rubin has also protested prayer policies in Arcadia,

Rosemead and Duarte in recent weeks. Because of his political aspirations

and his angry and dramatic style, Rubin may have not been the best

messenger for the anti-prayer point of view. Nevertheless, his arguments

bear consideration.

In a city with an increasingly diverse makeup of race, ethnicity and

religion, is it fair or appropriate to start government meetings with an

invocation thats exclude entire segments of the community? City Attorney

Dennis Barlow said the prayers at council meetings are Constitutional as

long as they do not "proselytize, belittle or promote one particular

religion." Bur prayers that refer to Jesus Christ specifically would seem

to be skating a fine line under the latter part of this definition. And

consider this: What if a the invocation prayer is followed by an agenda

item in which the council must consider a zoning variance for a church.

Would deciding the issue on the heels of a prayer perhaps influence the

way a council member might vote? It's possible.

Burbank has gone to some lengths to ensure that the invocation before

council meetings is open to all religions. The Burbank Ministerial

Association -- not the council nor a city employee -- selects who will

speak and the honor is rotated among ministers of different

denominations. Still, it is rare indeed when the person who leads the

prayer is not affiliated with a Christian Church. For some, that makes

the practice offensive even if it is not unconstitutional.

BOX:

TO PRAY OR NOT TO PRAY

Should Burbank should continue or drop its practice of a prayer or

invocation before City Council Meetings? We want to hear your views on

the subject. Please include your name and phone number and respond via

e-mail to bleader@earthlink.net, fax to (818) 954-9439, or mail to P.O.

Box 591, Burbank, CA 91503.

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