Praying in Jesus' name at California city council meetings is now illegal.

Since 1953 the city of Burbank had allowed members of a nondenominational ministerial association to open its council meetings with prayer. But Irv Rubin, the late chairman of the Jewish Defense League, filed suit in 1999 after a Mormon leader prayed in the name of Jesus Christ.

A California Superior Court judge ruled in November 2000 in Rubin v. City of Burbank that sectarian prayer at a city council meeting violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

The United States Supreme Court declined on May 19 to hear what would have been the second appeal of the decision.

John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, called Burbank a knee-jerk case of religious discrimination. Whitehead told Christianity Today that Burbank officials had created a public forum by providing leaders of all religious communities an opportunity to pray.

"It's a total misconstruction of the Constitution," Whitehead said. "Once you create a public forum for speakers, you can't discriminate on the basis of religion."

Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, said the Burbank victory "represents a good step in the direction of rejecting government-sponsored prayer."

The California judge said cities have to instruct clergy not to pray in a sectarian manner at meetings. Douglas Colladel, an attorney who filed an amicus brief in support of the prayer policy, told the Los Angeles Daily News the decision would affect the entire state.

"It affects all legislative bodies in California," Colladel said. "To avoid being sued, many cities may decide to abolish prayer altogether."

Jay Sekulow of the American Center for Law and Justice said the decision infringes on free speech. "The price of freedom is that sometimes you hear things in public places you don't agree with."

Marshall Allen in Pasadena

Related Elsewhere:

Related articles and essays include:

Rubin v. City of Burbank: Separating Church and State at City Council Meetings— (July 2003)
City Council can't begin meetings with sectarian prayer—Associated Press (Sept. 10, 2002)

The friend-of-the-court brief (PDF) filed by The Rutherford Institute on behalf of the City of Burbank is available online. The original judge's decision from 2000 is available at the Jewish Defense League website.

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