Cities all over the state are turning to Burbank with their
questions about Jesus.
Burbank is the center of a statewide debate regarding references
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
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
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
In Westminster, clergy voluntarily stopped giving prayers, leaving
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
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
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.”