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
policy as constitutionally protected, but their arguments do little to
dissuade those who say that religion should have no role in the political
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
“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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, fax to (818) 954-9439, or mail to P.O.
Box 591, Burbank, CA 91503.