The person who started the debate over prayers before Lodi City Council meetings has stepped forward and said a lawsuit is still on the table.
Lodi resident Karen Buchanan made the original complaint about council prayers to the Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation.
The complaint prompted the organization to send a letter to the city in May telling the council to enforce its own policy of "non-sectarian and nondenominational prayer" and eliminate references to Jesus Christ or the foundation would sue.
Buchanan appeared on the foundation's radio show on Oct. 12 to speak about the council's decision to continue invocations and allow uncensored prayers. She said the council's decision needs to be challenged in court.
"I didn't go to the council meeting to go to church, and so that whole arrangement seemed just totally out of place," Buchanan said on the show. "I felt uncomfortable with being in a church service and being asked to bow my head and to stand and to show respect to a God who is not part of who I am."
The council voted Sept. 30 to broaden its prayer policy to allow religious leaders to offer uncensored prayers and to be more inclusive.
The Lodi City Council will vote on a final policy Wednesday night. The proposed policy also includes opening up the invocation or "Call to Civic Responsibility" to all religious and secular groups.
The item is listed on the consent calendar, so it is possible the council will vote on it without discussion.
Buchanan, who has lived in Lodi for at least three years, had originally remained anonymous, but she decided to come forward after receiving support from groups in the area including Lodi United, which resident David Diskin formed to protest the council allowing prayers.
"I was just bowled over because I had felt as though I was alone," Buchanan said on the show.
Buchanan did not return a call for comment Monday.
She did speak at the meeting Sept. 30, which was held at Hutchins Street Square to accommodate the crowd.
During the invocations, one pastor has given a "bigoted rant" against a citizen who did not share the religious leader's views, she said.
"Invoking divine guidance has no place in meetings open to people of faith or no faith," she said at the meeting. "Please return council meetings to neutral grounds. Please stop government prayer."
The foundation does not release the names of members who file complaints for her organization to follow up on, Annie Gaylor, co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Gaylor said at first she thought Buchanan was concerned about the ramifications of the public knowing she was the one who contacted the foundation.
But she appreciates that Buchanan has stepped forward, especially because it might quiet some of the critics who accuse the "outside group" of unfairly targeting Lodi.
"I think that Karen just started to have a slow burn about it. … Many people just feel like they can't come forward," Buchanan said. "She realized she could make a difference, and we've been very grateful to her for everything she has done."
Gaylor has said the foundation plans to sue one of the cities in California that has continued allowing invocations.
Before filing a suit, the foundation will watch the invocations in all the California cities the group has challenged — Lodi, Tracy, Turlock and Tehachapi — to see what would be the best test case, she said in previous articles.
After the council's Sept. 30 meeting, Schwabauer has worked on drafting a policy, which was released Friday in a city staff report.
"For me, it was trying to create something that was an opportunity for Lodi citizens to offer a 'Call to Civic Responsibility' in their traditional faith or belief system while at the same time preventing it from being used in claiming the primacy of a faith over other faiths or lack of faiths," Schwabauer said.
While he did read other cities policies, he did not base the policy off of any other one. He even created the name a "Call to Civic Responsibility."
He decided on the name to be inclusive and as a way to define the invocations he believes are the most effective. The best invocations remind the council they have serious business before them and need to be willing to listen and put aside prejudices, Schwabauer said.
"It is a term that felt right for what an invocation should do and to distinguish it from what it should not do. I've heard invocations over the years that have been preachy, that have been political … and that's really not what the invocation is intended to be," he said.
He cannot say the policy is a guaranteed win if the city is sued because there are many uncertainties. But he does believe the policy is more inclusive, Schwabauer said.
"I think that what I've said before continues to apply. Just exactly where the courts are going to come down on legislative prayer isn't real clear."
Prayer policy at a glanceOn Wednesday, the Lodi City Council will decide on a policy to regulate prayers before the meeting. Here are some of the aspects included in the policy:
— Invocations will be given before the meeting is called to order at 6:55 p.m. No one attending the meeting will be required to participate in the invocation. Previously, the prayers happened after the meeting had been called to order and before the Pledge of Allegiance.
— The council will actively encourage all religious traditions, community leaders and non-religious leaders in Lodi to give a Call to Civic Responsibility. The city expanded this to include religious leaders who have to travel outside of Lodi to attend a place of worship, like members of the Sikh or Jewish religions.
The city clerk will compile a list of religious congregations and secular groups by researching online, consulting the Yellow Pages phone book and asking the Chamber of Commerce. The city will include all churches, congregations, other religious assemblies and nonprofit civic groups. Any group not included can request to be added to the list.
Every year, all the groups will receive invitations to come give the invocations, and the clerk will schedule them on a first-come, first-serve basis.
— The council will not allow invocations that attempt to convert anyone attending the meeting, advocate a political agenda or assert the "accuracy, inaccuracy or primacy of any religious belief or lack thereof."
Anyone who violates the requirements could have their prayer interrupted and terminated by the mayor, and the person will be barred from giving any invocations at future meetings.
— The council will add the following disclaimer to all agendas:
"Invocations may be offered by any of the various religious and nonreligious organizations within and around the city of Lodi. Invocations are voluntary offerings of private citizens, to and for the benefit of the Council. The views or beliefs expressed by the Invocation Speaker have not been previously reviewed or approved by the Council, and the Council does not endorse the beliefs or views of any Invocation Speaker or religious organization."
Source: Proposed policy in Wednesday's council packet
Foundation suing federal, California state governmentThe Freedom From Religion Foundation is currently working on another lawsuit in California relating to tax code benefits for ministers.
The foundation and 21 of its California members, including Karen Buchanan, filed suit Friday, and the news release describe the case as "nationally-significant."
Under "the parsonage exemption," clergy are allowed to deduct mortgage interest and property tax payments from their taxes, the foundation's news release said. Also, housing allowances for "ministers of the gospel" are not treated as taxable income.
This can create a "double-dip" situation where religious leaders are deducing housing expenses even though those expenses were paid for solely with tax-exempt dollars, the foundation said.
"Only 'ministers of the gospel' may claim these benefits, so the statutes convey a governmental message of endorsement, unconstitutionally favoring religious employees and institutions over all others," the news release said.
Employees of secular organizations do not receive the tax benefits. The foundation argues that puts its organization at a "competitive disadvantage."
The defendants in the suit are the Internal Revenue Service, Secretary of Treasury Timothy Geithner, commissioner of the IRS Douglas Shulman and Selvi Stanislaus, executive officer of the California Franchise Tax Board.