Are the Prayers of a Metaphysicist, a Sikh, and a Muslim Enough?

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  July 18, 2011 — 11 Comments

Just as legal questions over the Frederick County Commissioners opening invocations policy, initially dubbed a “Wiccan-proof prayer policy,” seemed to be settled, a new issue involving prayer before a government body (and religious minorities) is intensifying. This time Lancaster, California’s voter-approved invocations policy, which I covered last year, has withstood its first legal challenge.

Plaintiffs have failed to establish that the Policy has been used for an improper purpose or is otherwise unconstitutional. Volunteers of numerous faiths are invited to and have given invocations before City Council meetings, and the selection process does not discriminate against any faith.

You can read the full ruling, here. So, when the ruling talks about “volunteers of numerous faiths,” what do they mean?

“Since the City Council adopted the Invocation Policy: twenty invocations were given by people from Christian denominations, and each included a reference to Jesus or Jesus Christ; four invocations were by a person who identifies as a metaphysicist; one invocation was given by a member of the California Sikh Council; and one invocation was given by a person from an Islamic congregation. On four occasions no invocation was given because the scheduled speaker cancelled or was absent. No meetings were held on November23, 2010 or December 28, 2010. When counted only from the date of the challenged invocation, April 27, 2010, nine additional invocations included references to Jesus or Jesus Christ and five invocations have not included such references.”

Lancaster mayor Mayor R. Rex Parris, who had previously stirred controversy by proclaiming that “we’re growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that,” is now saying that “there never was any exclusion, and we never intended there to be any.” But is “a metaphysicist, a Sikh and a Muslim” enough to inoculate Lancaster’s prayer policy against the already-promised 9th Circuit Court appeal? I think the arguments given in an opinion piece published by the Los Angeles Times editorial board last year are still relevant.

“People of varying religious beliefs should be able to attend council meetings, or any other legislative sessions, without feeling marginalized … given the dominance of Christian congregations in almost all corners of the country, a rotating guest list is going to result more often than not in Christian prayer …Though a nondenominational prayer might satisfy the vast majority of Americans, aren’t atheists, agnostics, members of polytheistic religions and, for example, Buddhists — whose faith does not include a belief in a supernatural-related God — entitled to feel equally comfortable at these sessions? … there is no getting around the fact that what the courts call nonsectarian prayer is actually polysectarian monotheistic prayer. To someone who isn’t from one of those faiths — primarily Christianity, Judaism and Islam — this sure looks like establishment of a particular religious belief.”

While the inclusion of a Sikh and a Muslim is admirable, especially after one Lancaster City Councilwoman courted controversy in 2010 by saying that beheadings were “what the Muslim religion is all about,” Lancaster hasn’t veered far from “polysectarian monotheistic prayer.” Sikhism and Islam are, since I last checked, monotheistic religions, so that leaves the lone metaphysicist. If that anonymous metaphysicist came from the local Center for Spiritual Living, the individual in question was probably a monotheist too. So while there may be “numerous faiths” giving sectarian prayers, it remains to be seen if several flavors of monotheist truly is diverse enough. We know that the “include a Wiccan” gambit can work, but what about including a Sikh, a Muslim, and a Metaphysicist among a sea of prayers to Jesus?

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I’m still of two minds as to whether it’s preferable to have a broadly inclusive prayer policy for public-body meetings, or no such prayer at all? What is more inclusive than silence?

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    I’m still of two minds as to whether it’s preferable to have a broadly inclusive prayer policy for public-body meetings, or no such prayer at all? What is more inclusive than silence?

  • I live near Lancaster in unincorporated LA County. Since I don’t live in Lancaster, I can’t volunteer to attend a City Council meeting and offer a prayer. But I’m quite certain that R. Rex is not going to allow a Wiccan to offer a Prayer. He is a fundamental Baptist.

    • Guest

      Have you met him? He is actually really nice. I think he would let a Wiccan pray.

  • Dbendr

    The quoted editorial seems to imply that Jews are comfortable with prayers made in the name of Jesus. This is not, on the whole, true. Many Jews experience such prayers as exclusionary. Islam recognizes Jesus as a prophet.

  • kenneth

    So a metaphysicist, a Sikh and a Muslim walk into a bar….

  • Smashverbacide

    Silence intimidates me and I would feel marginalized if there was no prayer, let a lone to a specific deity.

    Baruch Dreamstalker

    “I’m still of two minds as to whether it’s preferable to have a broadly inclusive prayer policy for public-body meetings, or no such prayer at all? What is more inclusive than silence?”

  • It’s good to see some news from Lancaster that made it to a Pagan news-worthy blog. But Lancaster is pretty blinded by their Christian voters, and I would honestly be surprised if a true Wiccan or Pagan stood up to pray or invoke at a City Council meeting. Our track record in Lancaster has not been a pretty one. The Pagan community in Lancaster (and Palmdale) is a relatively small one. Had I not learned about Paganism through someone already somewhat a part of the community I would have had no idea that there was a Pagan community in Lancaster/Palmdale.
    I would love to see a Pagan stand up and invoke the god and goddess to preside over a city council meeting, but I just don’t see it happening any time soon. The reason this clause existed to begin with was not to weed out the Wiccans, but because someone had an issue with Jesus being mentioned in prayer.
    But I would love to see someone have an issue with a Wiccan offering to invoke her/his god and goddess at a city council meeting!

  • Edward George

    The quote from the LA Times is spot on. Any pretense to religious neutrality in government has been crushed under an unconcealed monotheistic ideology, as manifest in the “under God” revision of the pledge in 1954 and the replacement of E Pluribus Unum with “in God We Trust” in 1957. Although both are essentially unconstitutional, the courts have thus far elected to let them slide under the guise of “concessions to ceremonial deism”, “civil religion”, or other analogous spins. Spins abound.

    After reading the ruling in the present case it was evident that dear Judge Fischer chose to interpret Marsh vs. Chambers as permitting sectarian prayer. How convenient. With that critical decision in play the Rubin case unraveled beneath her pen like an old sweater. Hopefully the Ninth Circuit Court will spank her judicial butt over the matter.

    I’m just a bottom feeder with no law degree. I did, however, develop a somewhat perverse taste for church-state litigation just shortly after George Bush was elected to his first term. Anyway, Rubin and company were possibly in tactical in error for not challenging the prayer policy itself. The fundamental problem is the policy makes city hall the final arbitrator for determining who has standing to deliver an invocation and who doesn’t. Government cannot realistically assume such a role and be neutral at the same time. Claims to unbiased reliance on the yellow pages and the internet searches can leave a lot of people untouched if not deliberately ignored. And why should standing be limited to deity and idol worshipers alone? Why shouldn’t the secular and humanistic elements of the community have a fair and equal share in the action too? A selection policy that would fairly accommodate all sides, religious and irreligious alike is virtually impossible. This is certainly not an original insight. These issues were much more eloquently covered in some of the dissenting opinion attached to the March vs. Chambers ruling.

    One of the participating problems, I believe, exists in the form of ill conceived dialogue embedded in some rulings involving government-religion entanglement. Statements like “government should not favor or indorse one religion over another” make things problematic for judges ostensibly attempting to conform to previous rulings and still be pursuant to the mandates of the Constitution. The root difficulty is that government should never be in the business of religious endorsement period, not singular or multiple. The First Amendment says “no law respecting an establishment of religion”. It does not say “no law respecting an establishment of just one religion”. One might think that the term “an” really does extend to “any”, or am I just illiterate? In any case, the social conservatives have latched onto judicial spins like this and successfully exploited them, and particularly when right-leaning judges are on the bench. Such is the case, I believe, regarding the present outcome of the Rubin vs. City of Lancaster litigation. Judge Fischer was a George Bush appointment.