What happened in Santa Rosa reveals the demise of America’s civil religion.

Having come to town straight out of college in 1955 and having married a local girl, Dave Berto definitely fits into “old Santa Rosa.” He is, however, the kind of irrepressibly cheerful person who makes friends among the “new” people—those who have flooded Santa Rosa for the last 20 years. Besides building a small, successful business—a bill-collecting agency—Berto has served many civic causes, including the Boy Scouts, the YMCA, and the Santa Rosa Symphony. People like Dave Berto—they like him enough to elect him to the city council.

It was no surprise to these supporters when they read in their local newspaper, the Press Democrat, that Berto had proposed an invocation to begin city council meetings. An elder in his Presbyterian church, Berto has been known to quote Scripture during council meetings. “Prayer is the glue of our nation,” he says. “It holds us together. We look to God to lead us as a nation.”

Legally, prayers and invocations hold a tenuous position in government. Ever since the Supreme Court’s 1962 decision to outlaw prayer in public schools, secularism has dominated public life. Still, the law seemed clear that an invocation was allowable before a city council. Berto saw an opening prayer as one small way to bring respect for God back into the civic realm. “I looked at it as something I could do. Nobody was urging me to do it.”

When Berto brought up the issue at the May 12, 1992, meeting, only one council member, Nancy Burton, opposed him. “I don’t support it, primarily because of the diversity of faiths … in this community,” she was quoted by the Press Democrat as saying. “[There are] many other religious groups outside what we call ...

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