Praying for Good Government 

Rapidly diversifying Alameda considers dropping council invocation.

Clutching his Bible, John Pillitiere, an elder at Alameda Chapel, steps up to the lectern. He opens his Bible to Psalms 24:1 and reads aloud, "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein."

"Let's pray," he commands.

Many of the twenty or so people standing behind him bow their heads. Pillitiere closes his eyes and improvises:

"Lord, as such, you are concerned about these proceedings tonight; I pray they will please your heart. I pray for our city government, our City Council, the mayor, and all the city employees that are part of these proceedings and the work connected with them; that you'll give them strength of character, or that you'll give them wisdom and courage, clarity of mind, and integrity. Help them, Lord, to execute justice and righteousness."

"Thank you for everyone here. I commit them to you and to the word of your grace," he concludes. "In the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, amen."

The mayor thanks Pillitiere, who opens his eyes, steps down, and returns to his seat.

Thus begins another meeting of the Alameda City Council. Alameda is the only city in the county that still opens its council meetings with a prayer or invocation, a tradition that has been around as long as anyone here can remember. But things are rapidly changing in this island town that, until a few years ago, was home to the Bay Area's largest military installation. And in the new civilian era, newcomers from flashier parts of the Bay Area want those changes to continue. Their next target: getting rid of the city's antiquated tradition of public prayer.

Two coinciding factors have weighed heavily in the transformation of Alameda's social landscape over the past few years: the closure of the Alameda Naval Air Station in 1997 and the Bay Area real estate boom. Alameda Planning Director Colette Meunier says ample anecdotal evidence exists that many upwardly mobile San Franciscans seeking cheaper housing moved into the homes vacated by military families after the base closed. One of those San Franciscans who crossed the bay to Alameda in search of reasonable housing prices was 48-year-old librarian Steve Gerstle.

While he lived in San Francisco, Gerstle occasionally attended meetings of SF Board of Supervisors in which no religious deity was ever mentioned by name unless it was followed by the word "damn." Before Gerstle called San Francisco home, he was a graduate student living in Berkeley, where by the early '70s the City Council had stopped reciting even the pledge of allegiance. Gerstle, a Green party activist, assumed things wouldn't be too much different in Alameda. And then he heard someone invoking the name of Jesus Christ at the beginning of a City Council meeting. "It shocked me," he recalls. "I didn't know anyone did that anymore."

Gerstle is one of a growing number of new Alamedans who have been complaining in recent months to the City Council about the obvious lack of separation between church and state. The complaints have caught the attention of Mayor Ralph Appezzato. Until now, Appezzato, who was elected mayor in 1994, never before openly questioned the council's opening prayer tradition. But as the constituent gripes mount, he is starting to wonder about the wisdom of the tradition.

Earlier this year, the mayor asked city staff to compare Alameda's invocation to the ones practiced by nearby cities. But staff quickly found it had nothing to compare it to -- Alameda was the only city in the county that opened its meeting with an invocation, a sectarian one at that.

"That really surprised me," Appezzato says.

Appezzato is also coming to grips with the fact that his hometown is changing -- quickly.

"I'm much more sympathetic to these concerns [about the invocation at council meetings] now than I would have been five years ago," Appezzato, a practicing Catholic, says. "There's much greater religious diversity here than before." (Census 2000 statistics show a definite shift in racial diversity in Alameda: The number of whites in the city, which has a total population of 72,260, plummeted 23 percent from a decade earlier. Meanwhile, the number of Asians increased by more than 28 percent.)

On July 17 -- the same meeting where Alameda Chapel elder John Pillitiere opened the proceedings "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" -- the mayor and City Council formally requested that the city's Social Service Human Relations board review the prayer tradition.

Pastor Don Taylor of Central Baptist Church has been preaching in Alameda for 27 years. For a good number of those years, he's opened council meetings in Jesus Christ's name, praying for guidance and wisdom on behalf of city officials. Taylor considers the public ritual important because it underscores that man alone can't always solve his own problems. Sometimes we need divine intervention.

Taylor, who led the charge in 1995 against the city proclaiming June Gay Pride Month, scoffs at the idea of doing away with prayer at council meetings. "If someone is going to be offended when I pray in public in my way," the pastor reasons, "that seems to me to be intolerance at its height."

Although Taylor's insistence on praying at City Hall might seem to cross the constitutional line between church and state, the law is not so cut and dried. Prayer at public meetings in America is as old as the republic itself. The US Congress, in fact, has always opened its sessions with a prayer, a fact cited by former United States Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Berger in 1983 when the court upheld the Nebraska Legislature's tradition of starting each session with an invocation by a minister. "The practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society," Berger wrote.

Although Alameda is the only city in this county that starts council meetings with a prayer, it is not the only government entity in the Bay Area that does. The cities of Santa Clara, San Jose, and Redwood City also begin council meetings with an invocation. But unlike in Alameda, the public prayers in those cities are nonsectarian.

In December, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alexander H. Williams ruled that the Burbank City Council had violated the First Amendment by starting its meetings with a prayer to Jesus Christ. Williams noted that the Nebraska Legislature's opening prayer upheld by the US Supreme Court in 1983 was nonsectarian and didn't mention Christ. The city of Burbank is appealing the judge's decision. Meanwhile, the Northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union is demanding that the Redwood City Council get rid of its opening invocation.

Even though Redwood City's invocation is nonsectarian, ACLU representatives say that California's constitution is stricter than the federal constitution when it comes to the separation of church and state. The council is expected to hold a hearing on the issue in the next few months.

Margaret Crosby of the ACLU won't rule out suing cities with invocations, but says she would prefer that elected leaders in those cities come to realize on their own that the practice is inappropriate and change their policies accordingly. City officials in Alameda now appear as if they are going to do just that.

Among Alameda's opinion leaders, there appears to be momentum building for switching from an invocation to a moment of silence before council meetings, an idea Mayor Appezzato first raised in April. Appezzato's suggestion has even received support from a growing number of religious leaders around town including Rev. David Borglum of Home of Truth Ministry. In the past, Borglum has himself performed the opening invocation. "Such an introduction to silence," Borglum argues, "would provide a context for and remind us of the purpose of council meetings: Through the way we treat one another in the meeting and through public policy we seek to demonstrate respect and concern for all the people of Alameda. ... Everyone present would be free to pray, meditate, or be with whatever is most noble in themselves in their own way."

Switching to a moment of silence will be one of the options considered by the city's Social Service Human Relations Board later this month. The board could also recommend adopting a nonsectarian invocation or keeping things the way they are. Board president Jim Franz, however, says he'd like to do away with the invocation because it makes some people feel excluded.

"We're a very diverse community," Franz says, "and I think we have to respect that."

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