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Prayer lawsuit has statewide effects

Ryan Carter

Cities all over the state are turning to Burbank with their

questions about Jesus.

Burbank is the center of a statewide debate regarding references

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to specific deities during City Council invocations. Two men sued the

city three years ago when a Mormon bishop ended his prayer “in the

name of Jesus Christ.” Since then, the case has shuffled through

courtrooms with judges backing the men’s complaint that

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deity-specific prayers violate the separation of church and state.

The state Supreme Court’s refusal to hear the case makes a lower

court’s decision to ban sectarian prayer binding on all legislative

bodies in the state, leaving those groups vulnerable to similar

lawsuits if they allow such invocations.

The city’s next move is to file an appeal with the U.S. Supreme

Court, which attorneys plan to do in March.

“I get calls all the time from city attorneys asking, ‘What is the

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status of the case?’ We also get a lot of them wanting information

about it,” Assistant City Atty. Juli Scott said.

Across the state, the court opinions have prompted everything from

the refusal of ministers to continue their weekly prayers to quiet

defiance and grumbling. Meanwhile, some are asking if Burbank’s

appeals are worth it, while other cities line up in support of

Burbank’s appeals.

In Westminster, clergy voluntarily stopped giving prayers, leaving

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invocations to the mayor, city attorney or department heads. Other

cities are not making changes.

“This issue just gets under my skin,” Rosemead Mayor Robert

Bruesch said.

Rosemead resident Roberto Gandara, who is Catholic, and Jewish

activist Irv Rubin brought the initial suit against Burbank in 1999.

“It shocked me when Gandara came out and said, ‘You are crossing

the line and usurping my religion,’” Bruesch said.

Still, Rosemead and other cities allowed invocations with no

restrictions. Bruesch agreed with Scott’s argument that taking the

deity out of prayer is a form of discrimination based on religion.

Not so, said Robert L. Pinzler, a former Redondo Beach City

Councilman who purposely sat out of council invocations before taking

his seat at meetings. In October, amid grumbling, Redondo Beach --

like Burbank -- broke from tradition and banned sectarian prayers,

which led to some ministers’ refusals to pray.

“The prayers insult people by being exclusionary,” Pinzler said.

“It’s private. It’s personal. It belongs in places where that remains

the case.”

But after a $17,000 payout of attorney fees to Rubin’s side after

losing the initial trial court battle, and about $5,000 in other

fees, Burbank has not quit its appeals.

“We’ve had a lot of expressions of support from cities from all

over the state,” Scott said. “They are supportive of our legal

positions and concerned about this.”


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