Ben Franklin and the Lodi City Council

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It was the summer of 1787. The 55 delegates to the Constitutional Convention had been in session for nearly six weeks and they were at a stalemate. The weather was hot and so were their tempers. Late in the afternoon of June 28th, the senior member of the group, 81 year old Ben Franklin, rose and addressed the delegates. He recalled that in the contest with Great Britain they had daily prayer for Divine protection and their prayers were graciously answered, but in this Constitutional Convention they had not once applied to “the Father of lights to illuminate” their understanding. Franklin moved that “thenceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven and its blessing on our deliberations…be held every morning before we proceed to business.”  That was the turning point in the convention. Prayers have opened both houses of Congress ever since.

Ironically, two hundred and twenty two years later the city of Lodi, which also adopted a policy of opening their meetings with prayer, was threatened with a lawsuit saying that their opening prayer was unconstitutional! How can this be? The problem is that the meaning of the word “unconstitutional” is not what most Americans think. It has little to do with the plain meaning of the words in the constitution. The current U.S. judicial system is based on the case study method (or the concept of precedent) which was originated at Harvard in the late 1800’s by Christopher Columbus Langdell. The system is based on analyzing rulings from previous Appellate or Supreme Court cases, with the most recent and highest court rulings taking precedence over previous rulings. For example, you could begin with one clause of the constitution that clearly says black is black. A subsequent court might say that black is gray and another court later say that it is light gray and finally years later the Supreme Court rules that black is white! This is what happened to the “establishment clause” of the First Amendment to the Constitution which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….” It was intended by our founders simply to prevent Congress from establishing a national religious denomination such as they had in England. In recent years the establishment clause has been turned on its head by liberal judges to mean the complete opposite of its original intent!

The Freedom from Religion Foundation, an atheistic organization headquartered in Wisconsin, threatened a lawsuit against the City of Lodi for allowing pastors to pray in Jesus name before council meetings. This conflict quickly gained national attention and when the council finally called a meeting to vote on the issue the city had to rent an auditorium holding 900 people! How could a simple invocation before a council meeting become such a big issue? In 1983 the U.S. Supreme court, in Marsh v. Chambers 463 U.S. 783, held that a state legislature’s practice of paying a Christian pastor to pray before legislative sessions did not violate the establishment clause of the first amendment. That should have settled it but in a troubling 2006 California case, Rubin v. Burbank, 101 Cal.App.4th 1194, the court held that prayer before council meetings was “government speech” and that it must be censored to remove all sectarian references. As this author told the Lodi City council, giving a non-sectarian prayer is like having a banquet with no food!

Fortunately, the courageous Lodi City Council voted 5 to 0 to allow uncensored prayer before their meetings. However, in an attempt to avoid future lawsuits, the city council’s proposed policy added these conditions:

Invocations will be given before the meeting is called to order.

  1. Lodi religious leaders of all faiths will be invited to give the invocation.
  2. Non-religious groups will be given the opportunity to give a “Call to Civic Responsibility” in lieu of an invocation.
  3. A disclaimer will be included on the agenda that the prayers are voluntary and don’t necessarily reflect the council’s views.
  4. Invocations that directly seek to convert or demean a particular religious belief or lack thereof will be prohibited.

For now, the Lodi City Council made the tough but right decision and has followed the example of Ben and the 55 founders. Let’s pray (in Jesus’ name) that they have the courage to stay the course!

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