Council Meeting Prayers OK with SCOTUS


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Despite a U.S. Supreme Court ruling earlier this week upholding a town in upstate New York’s right to open its public meetings with a prayer, a local attorney is moving forward with his case alleging the Eureka City Council violated the law when doing the same.

Eureka attorney Peter Martin brought the suit last year on behalf of resident Carole Beaton, alleging that the city violated the California Constitution by repeatedly opening meetings with nondenominational prayers and by allowing Mayor Frank Jager to use his title and office to promote a “mayor’s prayer breakfast” on city property. Martin said he doesn’t foresee any impact from the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent 5-4 decision.

“(Beaton’s) suit is based on the California constitutional provisions separating church and state, which are somewhat different than the federal provisions,” Martin said. “I don’t think this carries a lot of weight for our case.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision stemmed from the small town of Greece, N.Y., which had a chaplain of the month program under which a rotating group of clergy would offer prayers to open government meetings. According to a lower court ruling, the chaplains were almost always Christian and sometimes used sectarian language.

Writing the majority decision in the case, Justice Anthony Kennedy said such opening prayers are more ceremonial than religious, noting they are meant to “lend gravity to the occasion and reflect the values long part of the nation’s heritage.”

Martin said Beaton’s case against the city is proceeding, noting that parties are currently awaiting a ruling from Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson on whether Martin can depose Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills about his role in a “Peace Officers Prayer Breakfast” Attorneys representing the city have argued that questioning Mills amounts to a fishing expedition unrelated to the case before the court, while Martin believes Mills’ conduct is intrinsically related to that of the mayor and the case, and therefore warrants exploration.

Watson has offered no timeline as to when he will issue a ruling.


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