LOS ANGELES — LOS ANGELES (AP) – When Lancaster’s flamboyant mayor R. Rex Parris calls the City Council to order at its next meeting, it’s a good bet he’ll open the proceedings with a prayer.
A controversial measure calling on residents to allow the City Council to continue beginning its meetings with heads bowed passed by a vote of more than 3-to-1 in Tuesday’s municipal election.
The issue seems far from resolved, however.
Peter Eliasberg, managing attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said Wednesday the ACLU is considering taking Lancaster to court if the prayers keep singling out Christianity over other religions.
Parris, who was up for re-election, had exhorted people to vote for the prayer initiative even if they didn’t want to vote for him.
Apparently quite a few listened, as he won re-election over four challengers by collecting 57 percent of the vote. Voters also extended the mayor’s term from two to four years beginning in 2012.
Nonbinding Measure I, the prayer measure placed on the ballot by the City Council, put the spotlight on the dusty, high-desert community of 145,000 located 70 miles northeast of Los Angeles.
City officials say clergy of different faiths are invited to lead the opening prayer, but critics have complained that Christian prayers are usually delivered. The Antelope Valley Press reported in February that 11 of 14 prayers over one stretch invoked the name of Jesus Christ.
Parris said Wednesday that isn’t surprising, estimating that as much as 90 percent of the community’s faithful is Christian. But the mayor, a prominent litigation attorney, said he is confident the measure will hold up in court. He said city officials were careful to phrase it in a way that gives all religious groups the opportunity to take part in leading some prayers.
Eliasberg said there is precedent for allowing nondenominational prayers at a public meeting, but that constitutional boundaries protecting religious freedom are crossed when such prayers almost always advocate a particular religion.
“We don’t allow the voters to decide what’s the official religion in the city of Lancaster,” he said.
The controversy was fueled in part by Parris’ statement earlier this year that he was “growing a Christian community” in Lancaster. He later apologized, saying he realized his words had offended non-Christians. He said Wednesday he’s proud that some of his most ardent supporters are members of Lancaster’s Sikh community.