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Turlock City Council struggles between free expression and establishment

The Turlock City Council prays before the start of their Tuesday evening meeting, which was focused heavily on the issue of governmental prayer.
The Turlock City Council prays before the start of their Tuesday evening meeting, which was focused heavily on the issue of governmental prayer.

One of the ways the members of Turlock’s City Council freely exercise their Christian religion, is with an invocation before their meetings. Until August 13, the invocations often ended “in Jesus’ name.” Freedom of religious expression is protected by the Free Expression Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. This is the same clause protecting freedom of speech, including that of the press.

Represented by Annie Gaylor and Rebecca Kratz, the Wisconsin based Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF), in a letter sent August 13 to Mayor Lazar and members of the Turlock City Council, argues that such prayer goes beyond free expression to an establishment of religion by the state, breaching the wall between church and state, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment.

These clauses, in the same amendment in the Bill of Rights, aim to protect every individual’s freedom of religion from being encroached upon by government. Sometimes the clauses come into conflict, when individuals freely exercise their religion while representing government, thereby establishing religion by the government. The Free Exercise Clause permits Turlock City Council members to freely exercise religion outside of meetings, while the Establishment Clause forbids them to establish their religion while the meetings are in session. This is to make sure that all present at the meetings are respected as equal participants in the political process.

In response to FFRF’s August 13 letter, the council unanimously adopted a new policy on September 22, which decided the voluntary invocations, receiving no compensation, will no longer be listed on the agenda and will be held before the gavel strikes to officially begin the meetings, to “solemnize proceedings of the Turlock City Council”. The individuals to give the invocation will be selected on a rotating basis from every established religious congregation in Turlock with Internal Revenue Service non-profit designation—not just Christian congregations. Such individuals may not be scheduled for consecutive meetings, nor for more than three meetings in a year, and in their invocation they may not promote their own doctrine or criticize doctrines of other faiths.

According to past U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Marsh v. Chambers in particular), such prayers are allowed, but they must be non-denominational and ceremonial. The policy adopted by the Turlock City Council therefore does not conform to U.S. Supreme Court precedent. FFRF objects that even though the council’s invocation is not listed on the agenda, it is still part of the meeting, still establishes religion without representing all religions equally (not required, but also not permitted, by the Supreme Court), and by infringing on the rights of atheists to be free from established religion in a government setting, turns them into “political outsiders of their own community and government” (Kratz).

To follow Supreme Court precedent in making pre-meeting invocations conform to non-denominational, ceremonial requirements, on the one hand, or to instead carry out the recently adopted policy which invites members of even non-Christian faiths to give the invocation, on the other hand, is to give up praying to the Christian God during those prayers, in every instance when following Supreme Court precedent, and in the instance when a non-Christian is giving the invocation, when carrying out the recently adopted policy.

Of course a member may still pray to the Christian God in their own mind, and the group may still meet in their off-time to pray. This would be true whether or not anyone was giving an invocation. The Establishment Clause concerns only the religious behavior of government officials as they are performing duties for the government, not their religious thoughts, and not their off-time.

FFRF is willing to go to court over the issue of religious invocations before city council meetings, but is watching the council's response to their August 13 letter. In the mean-time, the Turlock City Council still prays before meetings.

Weigh in:
Do you think the Turlock City Council, currently composed of Christians, should pray privately in their minds and collectively in their off-time, to ensure those of other faiths or of no faith are respected as equal participants in the political process, and to keep from compromising their values which include worshipping only the Christian God?
2. Do you think it is relevant that atheism and other secular beliefs are implicitly religious, as concerns making sure all are respected as equal participants in the political process?

Sources used for this article:
Turlock council prayers targeted
Council: Yes to prayer

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  • Ruth Walker 5 years ago

    Pray in your closet at home on your own time. Matthew 6

  • Maryann 5 years ago

    Hi Ruth. Yes, that passage comes to mind when thinking of prayer on the level of 'ceremonial deism'. And when it comes to the compromise struck by the council--Daniel refusing to pray to Babylonian gods comes to mind. Maryann

  • Amy 5 years ago

    I think it is dangerous ground when we begin being ashamed of our faith and allow government to tell us when and how we should pray. Sadly in our current "freedom from religion" mentality, we have strayed from the truth of what the original framers of the Constitution meant. To pray to our "Christian God" doesn't preach that others have to agree with the means of salvation, but simply invites Him to bless the meeting. Freedom of religion (which is what the framers of the Constitution meant) means we can't be forced to worship as the government tells us to worship, and yet sadly, that is what is happening more and more as people are bullying the removal of Christian prayers.
    Be warned America, God says He will deny those who deny Him. If you belong to Him through Christ's redemptive blood, don't be ashamed. Stand up, speak up, pray!

  • Maryann 5 years ago

    Thanks for replying, Amy. :) I don't think it is being ashamed of our faith when we respect that others should not have to feel like political outsiders because they do not share the faith of the majority in a government setting. Your sister in Christ, Maryann

  • Amy 5 years ago

    Maryann, I understand the concern for not wanting others to feel like political outsiders, yet if the reason is our difference in religion we need to be careful. No matter how hard the effort has been to rewrite the Christian roots to the establishment of the government of America, the truth remains. The framers of our original documents fought to secure the freedom to worship Jesus Christ and to use the Bible as the center point of the nations laws. To be respectful of another's religious viewpoint is fine, but when that respect begins to erase the lines on which our government was established, we stand on shakey ground. The Bible is filled with accounts of governments who chose to worship and respect God's laws, and those who didn't. God's blessings always are poured out on those who honor Him and His wrath on those who don't. Not my words.. His.

  • Maryann 5 years ago

    Amy, I think that if the nation is unified in following God, it would be incredibly awesome, but it must be done voluntarily. The way we are doing it now, makes people feel like Christians are saying "This is our nation. If you genuinely were a part of it, you'd be doing what we are doing." I think the Christians in office can honor God (Matthew 6:6) without alienating the members of the political system who are not Christians. I don't think alienating people honors God. And I don't think praying in our closet, in order to avoid alienating others, dishonors God. The ones who pray to the Christian God on behalf of non-Christians they politically represent--while this is awesome in the prayer closet--in front of them, are behaving like the ones in Matthew 6:5. Being salt & light, a city on a hill, involves loving and respecting eachother--not starting to pray in front of someone who does not share our faith. Check out 1 Corinthians 13:1 & Luke 17:21. Your sister in Christ, Maryann

  • Arik 5 years ago

    Dear Amy,

    Since you are so convinced that the framers of the Constitution were all Christians: please point out to us where in the Constitution the framers have mentioned Christianity, Jesus Christ or the Bible by name. The only mention of religion is where it refers to a religious test for public office. And guess what they agreed on: there cannot be one.
    Why is it so hard to realize that the assumption that everyone in this country endorses Christianity and what it stands for is false. This is exactly why the first Amendment to the Constitution states that government cannot establish a particular religion. -Arik

  • Stephen Borkowski 5 years ago

    I believe in disclaimers like the one used at the end of the Jim Cramer stock show. I have no ill will at towards any religious activities as long as the believers (even nonbelievers) admit that they cannot prove by empirical means that what they believe is fact and is only a matter of faith. The only people of danger
    are the ones who have certainty and don't know they don't know. I am an agnostic Deist because I know I don't know anything about the creator I believe in.

  • Maryann 5 years ago


    So are you saying you'd be cool with 'establishment of religion' if it came with such a disclaimer? Are you agnostic about everything (since we can't prove anything at all) -- or just about religion?

  • Joe McCarthy 5 years ago

    Irony in this particular question of Church-State is the new City Executive was Chief of Police in Modesto when threatened and rightly so by a retiring attorney on the repeated invocations which the pictures attached allude. It's not a difficult decsion there is as eparation, in Modesto you can't but Turlock you can. This is still California and the USA NO?

  • Maryann 5 years ago

    Joe, I am not sure what you mean. 1) That picture was taken of the Turlock City Council on September 22--wasn't Wasden in office by July? Here are the members of the council: www. 2) The FFRF (a foundation) is not retiring any time soon. 3) Respecting people's freedom of expression (which is infringed upon by the sort of establishment taking place when there is prayer before government meetings) transcends location. Respectfully, Maryann

  • Maryann 5 years ago

    P.S. Interesting tidbit I just learned is that (Sept. 8) Turlock's invocation policy was "suggested by the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that has sought to counter the foundation's warnings." www.

  • Maryann 5 years ago

    A relevant article, though it pertains to prayer at high school football games: www.