LONGVIEW — Ministers should refrain from invoking Jesus Christ in invocations for City Council meetings, Longview Mayor Don Jensen said.
Jensen told the Kelso-Longview Ministerial Association last month that such prayers were not acceptable because they could expose the city to a lawsuit, The Daily News reported Tuesday.
“It’s not my choice to stop this, but I don’t know how we can put our citizens at jeopardy and cost our city and our citizens a lot of money,” said Jensen, who met with the association upon the advice of the city attorney.
If they can’t speak the name Jesus Christ, association ministers will no longer provide the invocation, said President Mark Schmutz, pastor of Northlake Baptist Church. He called the development sad and disappointing.
“They’re asking us not to do what we’re (called) to do,” he said. “This is the one and only true God, and so we’re not trying to be against anybody — we’re just being clear about what we’re for.”
A Christian invocation has started Longview City Council meetings since the 1950s. There was no invocation at last Thursday’s meeting.
The invocation complaint was lodged by Longview resident Dan L. Smith, 69, who describes himself as a “very comfortable atheist.”
Smith has emailed council members for years, saying that people of other faiths or no faith shouldn’t have to endure a Christian prayer at a government meeting.
He didn’t want to take the case to court, even though he “would undoubtedly win” based on prior court decisions, he wrote.
“All I am asking is that you remove ... the invocation from the council’s agenda and that you sever any council ties with the (ministerial association’s) responsibilities for the delivery of the invocation,” Smith wrote in a March 2012 email, which he copied to the city attorney. “I do fully realize that this may not be a popular thing for you to do, but as an elected public official it is the right thing to do.”
Longview City Attorney James McNamara said the U.S. Supreme Court law has made it clear that invocations can be given at city council meetings.
“The more unclear answer is whether the prayer can invoke the name of Jesus Christ,” he said Monday, adding that different courts have reached different conclusions on the matter.
Smith said people can pray privately all they want, but there shouldn’t be a designated time for prayer in a public building.
“Religion should not be a part of government,” Smith said. “Who cares what (religion) anyone is. When they’re there to conduct business of government and you have an invocation, then all of a sudden people start to look around to see who’s standing and who’s sitting.”
Jensen, however, likes the invocation.
“I just think it sets a tone for the meeting that we’ll be more friendly,” he said. “I guess I really can’t explain it, but it just seems right to me.”