Complaint throws Yakima's council prayers into question

YAKIMA -- For years, the Yakima City Council has prayed in public. Now, someone's complaining.

Lawyers for the city are reviewing the council's practice of opening meetings with an invocation after a local resident's complaint was supported with a challenge from a national group that opposes prayer in government.

In a letter dated Nov. 5, a lawyer for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wis., accused the council of violating the constitutional principle of separation between church and state.

The lawyer, Rebecca Markert, contends that courts allow invocations as a historical custom in government or legislative settings as long as such prayers refrain from endorsing specific religions or denominations. She provided transcripts of every council invocation this year through October, all of which contained repeated references to "Heavenly Father" and Jesus Christ.

"The council is illegally and inappropriately imposing its religious beliefs on the citizens of Yakima who attend the council's meetings for public business," Markert wrote.

The challenge drew a heated response from Mayor Micah Cawley, one of three council members who regularly lead the invocation. The others are Dave Edler, a local pastor, and Dave Ettl.

Cawley said nobody on the council asked legal staff to review the complaint, and he vowed not to "cave in to a veiled threat from an activist group in Madison, Wisconsin."

"If I'm going to pray, I'm going to say Dear Lord or Jesus. That's my prerogative as a council member," he said, "and if they're going to take me to court over it, I say 'I'll see you there.' "

The extent to which other city councils in the region practice invocations wasn't immediately known. The Yakima County Board of Commissioners does not start meetings with prayer.

Gonzalo Guillen, the local resident who filed the complaint, described himself half-jokingly as an "atheist Mexican" and said he's been a member of the Freedom From Religion Foundation for several years.

Guillen said he began paying attention to city hall politics after the city's first Latino council member, Sonia Rodriguez, was appointed to the council two years ago and that he remains upset that voters turned her out in favor of Ettl.

Although he doesn't usually attend council meetings, he said he began watching them on the city's website and became disturbed by what he described as the "one-sidedness" of the invocations.

"What's happening, every one of their prayers is in the Lord's name and whatnot," said Guillen, who added that he is a firm supporter of immigration reform and council redistricting.

"I think more than anything else, it's the self-righteousness that really rubs me the wrong way."

Cawley said he hasn't read Markert's letter but defended the invocations as reflective of the makeup of the council. Customarily the invocation is also followed by a group recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Although he, Edler and Ettl usually lead the invocation, he said any failure to take turns by other council members should not be seen as their philosophical reluctance.

"Is it political suicide not to?" he asked. "Well, if you came out and denounced prayer, it's a part of our country. ... If the majority of the council didn't want to pray, then we wouldn't be praying."

When pressed on the point, however, he added, "If a council member said, 'I don't want to pray,' I would have to take issue with that."

In a phone interview from her office in Wisconsin, Markert described herself as "beseiged" by complaints to her group brought on by the upcoming Christmas holiday.

While she prefers the practice stop, she said a compromise could be reached in the form of "something nondenominational."

She said there is disagreement even among Christians about prayer in government settings. Some denominations disparage demonstrations of prayer in public as a form of conspicuous piety.

"Asking people to rise and pray is sort of a church service more than a council meeting," she said.

She said she's waiting for a formal response from the city's legal staff before deciding whether to pursue a lawsuit.

"We have to wait and see what the attorneys come back with before we decide the 'Or what?' part of it," she said.

Mark Kunkler, a senior assistant city attorney, said he doesn't expect to have a legal analysis ready for the council until after the holidays. The council's next meeting is Tuesday.