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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on November 5th, 2013, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 35 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 35

Religious watchdog sues Pismo Beach

BY RHYS HEYDEN

They’ve been agitated for years, and now a coalition of individuals and organizations who object to Pismo Beach’s brand of public prayer has filed an extensive, strongly worded lawsuit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based nonprofit, is the official name on the suit, with Dr. Sari Dworkin—a Pismo resident, psychologist, and self-identified “atheist Jew”—serving as the local plaintiff.

The suit, filed Nov. 1, alleges that prayers conducted at Pismo Beach City Council meetings are unconstitutional. It also requests a permanent end to the prayers and seeks to declare the city’s appointment of Dr. Paul Jones as city chaplain as unconstitutional, too. Dworkin and the foundation are also pursuing nominal damages, attorney’s fees, and court costs.

The suit names the city of Pismo Beach, the Pismo Beach City Council, Mayor Shelly Higginbotham, and Dr. Paul Jones as defendants.

“With 20 percent of the adult population today identifying as nonreligious, at least a fifth of the population is routinely excluded and offended by official prayer conducted by the city,” Annie Laurie Gaylor, foundation co-president, said in a news release. “Elected officials should get off their knees and get to work.”

The council established an official “city chaplain” position in 2005, and appointed Jones, a Pentecostal preacher affiliated with the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. He’s served as the city chaplain ever since.

The foundation alleges that Pismo Beach has been in violation of the “no preference and establishment” clauses of the California Constitution ever since the city chaplain position was created back in 2005.

The complaint claims that Jones’ prayers often turn into sectarian mini-sermons that “proselytize and advance Christianity, and disparage non-Christians.”

Particularly damning is Jones’ prayer from Oct. 16, 2012, when he asked the “Heavenly Father” to prompt citizens to “elect leaders who will stand up for the clear standards that are expressed in the Bible, the Holy Writings of God.” Jones also complained that “many of our citizens and leaders have turned from the path of righteousness in our lives and lifestyles.”

The complaint alleges that the prayers caused Dworkin to “feel offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated about participating in her own government.”

The lawsuit—which took more than a year to compile—was prepared by Los Angeles intellectual property attorney Pamela Koslyn, Freedom From Religion Foundation Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel, and Atheists United of San Luis Obispo.

When contacted by phone, Jones thanked the reporter for the kindness, but referred the Sun to the city for comment. Pismo Beach City Attorney Dave Fleishman, Mayor Higginbotham, and City Manager Jim Lewis were aware of the lawsuit, but had no comment.