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.