Dispute Over Sectarian City Council Prayers Sparks Debate In Calif.

Communities in California are wrestling with the issue of sectarian prayers before governmental meetings in the wake of a court ruling banning such invocations.

The controversy began in 1999 when the late Irv Rubin, chairman of the Jewish Defense League, sued to block sectarian prayers before sessions of the Burbank City Council. Rubin was angered after he attended a city council meeting and heard an opening prayer in the name of Jesus Christ.

Rubin filed a lawsuit in the California courts and won. In May, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear another appeal of the City of Burbank v. Rubin case, thus leaving in place the ban on sectarian prayers before governmental meetings.

Some elected officials are experiencing difficulty getting guest clergy to play by the new rules. On May 27, a Lutheran minister offered the opening prayer before a session of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and cited Jesus, calling him "the only mediator between God and man."

The Rev. Martin Brauer of Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Santa Clarita told the Los Angeles Daily News that he was aware of the rules but considered them "silly" and refused to abide by them.

County guidelines ask guest ministers to "please keep in mind that you may not call upon or invoke names specific to a particular doctrine or denomination. Your voluntary participation in the invocation indicates that you will abide by the guidelines."

County Counsel Bill Pellham told the newspaper that the county may take note of which clergy disregard the guidelines.

"We may have to consider that people who violate the law will not be re-invited to the ceremonial portion of board meetings," he said.

Shelley Rubin, widow of Irv Rubin, said she would monitor local communities to make sure they are in compliance and file more lawsuits if necessary.