ADL wants Humboldt County to drop religious rituals

While not opposed to the act of prayer itself, the ADL thinks the public agency may have breached the constitutional separation of church and state with the religious ritual — and hopes the supervisors halt the practice in the future.

An ADL official in San Francisco also is concerned that people of minority faiths or with no religious background might feel excluded by the prayers. At a recent supervisors' meeting in the Humboldt County community of Eureka, Jewish attendees publicly complained when the pastor who led the prayer did so in the name of Jesus.

"We have strong laws in this country that mandate government neither endorse nor restrict religion," said Jonathan Bernstein, executive director of the ADL's Central Pacific Region. "Any lawyer who did some research on this issue would recommend a change."

However, Lora Canzoneri, clerk of the board of supervisors, said the complaints raised by the Jewish residents were the first she'd heard in her 15 years on the job and 30 years with the county.

"People of all denominations are invited" to lead the invocation, she said; past leaders have included rabbis, imams, various Christian clergy and Native American tribal leaders.

The diversity of the prayers' leaders, however, is not what's at issue, said Bernstein. Rather, it is the content of their message.

"There is no reason why they can't have an inclusive prayer led by someone who is able to deliver a powerful religious message that can have a positive influence in society without excluding people," he said, adding that this is an issue that comes up "in most every rural town."

The ADL last week sent a letter to Supervisor Bonnie Neely, chairperson of the board, explaining its concern and asking that the practice be changed. In the letter, Bernstein and Karen Zatz, an associate director in the local office, noted that the United States Supreme Court forbids the use of invocations at state legislatures that "inculcate any particular religion" or proselytize.

"If the Board of Supervisors opens its sessions with sectarian prayers, it would seem to violate the law and this principle…The board is sending a message that those who do not pray to Jesus Christ are not welcome in Humboldt County or before the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors."

Bernstein and Zatz also explained that many cities and counties throughout California "have chosen not to include an invocation" at legislative meetings, or, if they have elected to include one, "have ensured that non-sectarian prayers are delivered."

The letter was accompanied by a list of suggested guidelines for prayers at city council meetings, drafted by the ADL — and as suggested by the U.S. Supreme Court. It includes a suggestion that the prayer "contain no reference to a particular deity, sect or denomination, or to any of the central religious figures associated with any particular religious belief."

Before receiving the letter, Neely said she and the other supervisors would not be opposed to suggestions regarding the board's invocation.

"In the past, we've left it up to the individuals to make their presentation how ever they wanted and we have haven't had any complaints, prior to this," said Neely. "But if someone was offended, they should write to us and we're happy to pass on the letter and see if we can address it in a fair and sensitive way."

Last October, the Alameda City Council discontinued its invocations after community leaders, including members of Alameda's Temple Israel, objected to the longstanding practice. Alameda had been the last city in the East Bay to open its council meetings with prayers.