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Uncensored prayer is legally sound and right for Lodi

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Posted: Monday, September 21, 2009 10:00 pm

For more than 220 years Americans have enjoyed the freedom to pray for their government representatives through invocations before local, state and federal legislative bodies.

The same Founding Fathers who authored the Bill of Rights - including the First Amendment - also authorized prayer invocations before Congress by chaplains who prayed in Jesus' name. To this day, the inauguration of the President and opening session of Congress start with invocations that reference not only Jesus, but other faiths as well. The U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld legislative prayer invocations and no federal court has ever banned them.

Armed with a wrong-headed California state court opinion, anti-prayer advocates are threatening to sue the Lodi City Council because some invocations at council meetings have mentioned Jesus. Why are they threatening Lodi instead of Congress or the White House? Perhaps they believe that small municipalities with budget concerns can be "bullied" into removing or limiting invocations to avoid litigation.

The problem started when Lodi adopted a "nonsectarian" prayer policy in 2006. Nonsectarian means a prayer so vague that no particular belief system can be identified.

Nonsectarian prayers cause problems for three reasons. First, such prayers unfairly put the City Council in the role of "prayer police" who must continually scrutinize the content of invocations and enforce restrictions on how people can pray. Second, requiring people to refrain from acknowledging their particular religious beliefs deprives them of their free exercise of religion under the First Amendment. Finally, telling people they cannot say certain things during their prayer is government censorship - plain and simple.

The solution is not to further secularize government by restricting or eliminating invocations. Instead, Lodi should adopt the same policy used by Congress and the White House: Permit uncensored invocations that allow peoples of all faiths - or no faith - to participate. The Founding Fathers did not intend that religion should have no place in government affairs. Instead, they intended that all beliefs have equal opportunity to express themselves. They preferred pluralism over secularism.

Americans may not always agree with everything they hear, but at least until now, they have always been willing to defend with their lives the right of individuals to speak their mind free of government censorship.

No matter what a person's religious beliefs may be, each individual should have the right to officially address governmental authorities and commend those most sincerely held beliefs for the success of those who govern. Americans should be willing, from time to time, to listen to points of view they may disagree with rather than accept limits on their constitutional rights of religion and speech.

On Sept. 30 at 7 p.m., the Lodi City Council will conduct a public hearing on this issue at the Hutchins Street Square auditorium. Come out and let your voice be heard.

Ken Owen wrote and submitted this on behalf of Citizens for Uncensored Prayer, a coalition of local organizations, pastors, attorneys and citizens.

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