A three-letter word has revealed what one local pastor says is a contradiction in the meeting policies of the Lompoc City Council — that word being “God.”
That apparent contradiction has led the City Council to agree informally to discuss, and possibly rewrite, its invocation policy in the near future.
Beginning last month, the staff at City Hall began sending out a short letter reminding speakers who were scheduled to give the invocation at the start of council meeting that the city policy calls for invocations to include “words of wisdom and inspiration without reference to any specific reference to any specific religion, sect or deity.”
“That contradicts the very definition of the word ‘invocation,’ so I needed clarity on what they meant,” said the Rev. Robert Kee, pastor of Riverview Church of God.
Kee was one of the first speakers to receive the letter. He said it was received the day before he was to give the invocation. At the Nov. 17 council meeting, Kee instead challenged the policy.
As a result, several council members agreed that the handbook’s policy requires some review, and a public discussion is being scheduled for some time next year.
When called to the podium Nov. 17, Kee turned to the council and argued that even the capitalized word “God” denotes the God of the Bible, and would not be allowed according to the council’s policy.
“I’m asking for a definition, Mayor,” Kee said, arguing there could be no invocation without a specific deity.
Mayor Mike Siminski asked to continue the conversation with Kee after the meeting, and then led the room in reciting the lyrics of “God Bless America” by Irving Berlin.
“I was great with it,” Kee said of Siminski’s impromptu invocation, “but that still violates their policy.”
Later in the meeting, former Sunday School teacher turned atheist, Matthew Hughes of Vandenberg Village, thanked Siminski for his “totally appropriate invocation,” city staff for sending the letters to invocation speakers, and the City Council for choosing to update and enforce its policy.
Kee said he had given the invocation for the City Council once before, at the Nov. 3 meeting. At that same meeting, Hughes told the council that the language in Kee’s invocation threatened to alienate members of other faiths, and violated the Constitution’s First Amendment.
Contacted for this story, Hughes said he agreed with Kee that an invocation without naming a specific deity represented a watered down version of a religion.
As an alternative to an invocation, Hughes suggested the council begin meetings with a moment of silence.
“It would provide the opening of the council meeting with an appropriate atmosphere of solemnity, and allow all citizens to reflect, in their own way, on the serious matters before the City Council,” Hughes said.
Kee said the full implications of the council policy had become “a topic of concern, a topic of prayer for many ministers in Lompoc.”
Since the incident, the City Council has held one more meeting, on Dec. 1, where Pastor Bernie Federmann, of Lompoc Foursquare Church, gave an invocation which used the word “God,” without incident.
Contacted later, Federmann said he approaches invocations like he does his role as a chaplain with the Lompoc Police Department.
“I see it as a chance to serve, not to press my doctrine on the council, the people in the audience, or those watching at home,” Federmann said.
Federmann added that his pulpit on Sunday was where he was free to promote his personal beliefs and views.
The speaker for each meeting’s invocation is typically chosen from a list of the community’s Christian Ministerial Association, and another list of interfaith religious leaders.
Pastor John Reil, from the Peace Lutheran Church, helped organize the invocation speakers for the ministers until recently.
“It’s a tough thing to ask pastors to do,” Reil said of the invocation. “I’m watchful that I don’t insult anybody, but I also do not want to deny my own faith.”
Federmann said he and other ministers in the community would be willing to help the City Council review the policy.
“Instead of Jesus, or the Father and Son, or Allah, I think we need to pray to ‘God,’ and let people interpret what god that is,” Federmann said.
Striking the proper balance between the separation of church and state doctrine, and the appropriate words to use in public prayers and invocations is not isolated to Lompoc.
Last week, the City Council of Richmond, Ky., approved a new policy for its invocations that would require each agenda to include a disclaimer that the city did not necessarily endorse any belief expressed in an invocation. The new policy would also require that all invocations, “not proselytize or advance any faith, or show any purposeful preference of one religious view to the exclusion of others.”
In 2005, the Indiana State Legislature was brought to court for featuring the words “Jesus Christ,” and “Savior” in a majority of invocation prayers.
Judge David Hamilton ruled that using such words did violate the Constitution, but using the generic term “God,” even in a different language, would be acceptable, as long as the name was not used to advance or disparage a particular religion.
In his decision, Hamilton wrote: “All are free to pray as they wish in their own houses of worship or in other settings. Those who wish to participate in a practice of official prayer must be willing to stay within constitutional bounds.”
According to the American Civil Liberties Union, the Supreme Court has ruled: “Government entities are constitutionally permitted to open their meetings with a prayer if — and only if — those prayers are nonsectarian, meaning the content of the prayer may not favor any particular religion nor disparage any particular religion.”
For Kee, the trend of court rulings is the opposite of what he would like to see.
“Separation of church and state was never meant to keep the church out of government. It was to keep the state out of religion,” Kee said.
Kee said the posting of the phrase “In God We Trust,” inside the City Council lobby and on the speaker’s podium in 2008, has been an encouraging sign that the policy will be changed.
That has not kept Kee from actively campaigning for that change. The Riverview Church’s Web site includes a page encouraging the public to contact the council about the issue. The page includes the exhortation: “Please keep God in government! We will surely cease to exists as the nation of God’s blessing if we don’t.”