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City defends council prayers

Paul Clinton

CIVIC CENTER -- Prayer will stay.

Unruffled by a Jewish activist’s threat to include Burbank in a 1st

Amendment lawsuit, city officials are vowing to preserve the invocation

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that kicks off every City Council meeting.

“As the law sits now, prayers are acceptable as long as they do not

proselytize, belittle other religions or promote one particular

religion,” City Atty. Dennis Barlow said. “Unless (the courts) want to

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plow new ground, they would allow what we have.”

In a blistering speech from the dais Tuesday night, activist Irv Rubin

said the meeting’s prayer violated the 1st Amendment’s establishment

clause -- providing for the separation of church and state -- by invoking

the name of Jesus Christ.

Rubin, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League, accused the

city of “making a Christian pageantry” of the council meeting. Rubin said

he was also offended that the city allowed a group of John Burroughs High

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School students to sing “Silent Night” because of the carol’s numerous

references to Christ.

“When the prayer invoked Jesus’ name, I was flabbergasted,” Rubin said

Wednesday. “I just don’t think it has a place in city council.”

Rubin -- who has also raised the issue at council meetings in Arcadia,

Rosemead and Duarte in recent weeks -- said he will seek a federal court

injunction against the public prayers.

Rubin, a Republican candidate in the race for the 24th District seat

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held by Assemblyman Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), has also cited prayers

before Congressional sessions as problematic. Rubin said he has contacted

Santa Monica attorney Roger Jon Diamond.

Diamond, a high-profile constitutional lawyer, said he could not

respond specifically to Rubin’s claims against Burbank and the other

cities because of attorney-client privilege. Yet, Diamond said any

references to Christ at a council meeting would violate the establishment

clause.

“Where does religion belong? It belongs in the home, in the families

and in places of worship,” Diamond said. “It does not belong in

government.”

But Barlow said the Supreme Court, in several rulings, has affirmed

the right to pray before government meetings.

Other Burbank officials said there are no plans to do away with the

invocation. Burbank City Manager Bud Ovrom disagreed with Rubin’s

contention that Burbank singles out Christianity over other religions.

Ovrom said the denominations of the ministers who deliver the prayers

rotate each week.

“We take great pains to be, if not nondenominational, then

cross-denominational,” Ovrom said. “Our answer is not to have them all

gone, but to have them all included.”

Ovrom and others said Burbank doesn’t discriminate against any

religions. He said the city has an open invitation to all religious

groups in the city to offer a prayer.

The city has taken a hands-off approach, City Clerk Judie Sarquiz

said. Instead of choosing the pastor who performs the invocation, the

city allows the Burbank Ministerial Association to make the choice, she

said.

Mayor Stacey Murphy also defended the city’s prayer as constitutional

and said the practice is not meant to offend.

“Everybody can choose to leave the council chambers if they want,”

Murphy said.


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