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City Council sued over prayers

Paul Clinton

CIVIC CENTER -- Making good on his threat, a Jewish activist has filed

a 1st Amendment lawsuit against Burbank to stop the city from continuing

its practice of prayer before City Council meetings.


Irv Rubin, the national chairman of the Jewish Defense League, said he

felt excluded when he attended the Nov. 23 council meeting and a Mormon

pastor referred to Jesus Christ during the invocation.

Rubin said he considered including other cities in the suit. Late last


month, Rubin suggested that several San Gabriel Valley cities --

including Rosemead, Arcadia and El Monte -- were also offenders. Burbank,

however, was the only city named in the suit.

“I want Burbank because it was the most blatant and the most

insensitive,” Rubin said. “I don’t want to be excluded because I’m not


Rubin, who filed the lawsuit Monday in Los Angeles Superior Court,

said the reference to Jesus Christ violates the Constitutional separation


of church and state because it singles out Christianity over other


“I’m not concerned about prayers,” Rubin said Tuesday. “I’m concerned

about their content.”

Burbank officials were quick to defend the invocation. City Atty.

Dennis Barlow said Tuesday that the city believes its prayer policy is


“If you have prayer at all, you let people pray the way they pray,”


Barlow said.

Mayor Stacey Murphy agreed that the city can not ask those who deliver

the invocation to avoid references to Christ.

“I think that when you tell people what they can and can’t say, we’re

infringing on their rights to free speech,” Murphy said.

City officials have pointed out that Burbank invites members of all

religious groups to participate and is not directly involved in selecting

who will speak. That function assigned to the Burbank Ministerial


But Rubin’s lawyer, Santa Monica attorney Roger Diamond, said he is

seeking a state injunction to stop the invocation. After Burbank is

served with the suit, the city will have 30 days to respond.

Diamond said he expected a state judge to rule on the issue within 30

days of the city’s response.

When pressed, Diamond said he couldn’t cite any earlier cases that

have addressed prayer in city council chambers in California. However, he

said the state ruled against Los Angeles in a 1978 after the city

displayed a lighted cross on City Hall for Christmas.

The Anti-Defamation League has also joined the debate. The league

recently sent a letter to Burbank expressing concern over Christian

prayers and calling for a nonsectarian invocation.

“When you invoke a certain deity, that excludes other religions,”

league spokesman Aaron Levinson said. “It implies that if you don’t

believe in that deity, you’re not welcome in that council.”