How would a prayer at city council meetings in California hold up if the invocation mentioned Tom Cruise or Scientology, a 9th Circuit judge asked.
“What if someone has an objection, not to Jesus Christ, but to Abraham or Mohammed or Martin Luther, Confucius, Buddha?” Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain asked. “I mean we can make a long list, Tom Cruise and Scientology. Where do we draw the line?”
The judge put the amusing hypothetical to a lawyer fighting the recitation of prayers referencing Jesus at the start of every city council meetings in Lancaster, Calif.
Shelly Rubin and Maureen Feller filed suit over the practice in 2010, but a federal judge in Los Angeles ruled last year that the prayer survived the test laid out by the Supreme Court in 1983.
Claims about a prayer that makes a single reference to Jesus would require the court to analyze the content of the prayer, but that is barred under Marsh v. Chambers, according to the court.
“Because plaintiffs do not even claim the April 27 invocation was ‘exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief,’ this court cannot properly perform such an analysis,” U.S. District Judge Dale Fischer wrote.
Rubin and Feller’s attorney, Roger Diamond of Santa Monica, fine-tuned the claim last week before a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit.
Saying that a pre-meeting invocation is fine, generally, the plaintiffs say that Lancaster violated the establishment clause by more commonly choosing Christian prayers over those of other denominations.
“In a period of about a year, and the council meets every two weeks, 20 prayers were given in the name of Jesus Christ,” Diamond said. “If it were an isolated situation then we might have a different case.”
He added that the appeal does not challenge an isolated event, but rather a city practice that led to repeated references to Jesus Christ.
1. LGBTQ rights supporters started boycotting Chick-fil-A years ago. Many media outlets treated Dan Cathy’s announcement as new information, though the company has been stepping up involvement in Christian Right politics since Cathy took the helm in 2001. But even his father, Truett Cathy, has donated to causes associated with the Christian Right for many years. And Chick-fil-A didn’t exactly start out as a secular business. Since Truett Cathy, a Baptist, opened his first Chick-fil-A restaurant in 1967, the family business has operated according to Christian ideals like closing on Sundays. A 2007 Forbes exposé revealed just how deep the practices go — the company’s mission is to “glorify God,” and it has faced discrimination suits by plaintiffs alleging intense pressure to participate in Christian prayers, conferences and other events. Some franchises stock right-wing news media like the Washington Times or play only conservative Christian radio.
A 2009 Equality Matters report found that Chick-fil-A’s charity division, WinShape, donated more than $1 million to anti-gay groups between 2001 and 2008. In 2009 alone, $1.7 million went to anti-gay groups. Chick-fil-A has promoted the Christian Right’s alternative to Sesame Street, Veggie Tales (originally formed to oppose the allegedly “pro-homosexual agenda” at PBS), as well as Focus on the Family materials, in its kids’ meals. For at least the past decade, Chick-fil-A’s ties to the Christianright have been common knowledge among many LGBT groups and progressive organizations. Many members of these communities have been boycotting Chick-fil-A for years now.
2. Chick-fil-A mistreats its workers. I worked at a Cary, North Carolina, Chick-fil-A while in high school in the mid-’90s. The hourly wage I made was extremely low — around $6 per hour, as I recall. Once, a manager told the franchise owner that I was unfriendly to a customer, and as punishment I was forced to spend hours cleaning mildew off the floor of a back room.
It turns out that I was not the only low-level employee the company has mistreated over the years. Although Chick-fil-A boasts of how well it treats its workers, that treatment seems to apply mostly to franchise owners, who had a 2007 turnover rate of just 5 percent. But the turnover rate for hourly employees — that is, the people on the frontlines of kitchen prep and cash registers — was 60 percent. Hourly wages are quite low throughout the company. Plus, its employees are mostly non-union, so there are many opportunities for abuse.
There have been reports of extensive employee vetting, including intrusions into employees’ personal lives about issues like “personal sin.” The company saw about 12 lawsuits between 1988 and 2007. There were a range of disturbing allegations, from the termination of a Muslim employee who opted out of Christian prayers to the demotion of women for speaking out about sexual harassment. A Georgia woman alleges being fired in 1997 after being pressured by the company to stay at home with her children.
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Perhaps the locals should have anticipated sparks on a town council stocked not only with a practicing pagan, a staunch atheist and an agnostic former stripper but also two evangelical Christians and a Methodist church organist. But few could have predicted that one small town’s fight over the abolition of Christian prayers at public meetings would escalate into Britain’s own culture wars.
Even as the Republican primaries highlight America’s divide over the separation of church and state, Britain finds itself locked in a debate over religion that is entangling not just the British government but even Queen Elizabeth II. The move to ban public prayers in tiny Bideford — and potentially across all of England and Wales — has erupted into a national proxy fight over the question of whether Christianity should still hold a privileged place in a modern, diverse and now highly secular society.
The match that lit the fires was struck in this quaint town, site of the last witch trials in Britain. Local lawmaker Clive Bone, an atheist, was backed by four of his peers in challenging the long-standing tradition of opening public meetings with blessings by Christian clergy. After losing two council votes on the prayer ban, Bone took the town to court — winning a ruling last month that appeared to set a legal precedent by saying government had no authority to compel citizens to hear prayer.
The Conservative-led British government has quickly attempted to counteract the ban and defend the official status of Christianity — more specifically, the Church of England. At a time when half of Britons claim no religious affiliation, however, the Conservatives are also going one step further — blaming a loss of “traditional values” for such social ills as binge drinking and last year’s riots in London.
In a nation where the Labor Party spin-doctor Alastair Campbell once said, “We don’t do God,” the Conservatives in power have unleashed a number of moves seen by opponents as an attempt to claw back lost ground for Christian traditions — including a vow by the national education minister to send a King James Bible to every school in England.
Even normally behind-the-scenes Queen Elizabeth is dusting off the monarch’s historic role as “defender of the faith” and supreme governor of the Church of England, suggesting in recent weeks that by targeting public prayer, secular society has gone too far.
“The concept of our established church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated,” the queen, deploying her trademark power of understatement, said in what was widely viewed as a thinly veiled reference to the prayer debate.