A Lancaster ballot measure asking voters to approve city officials' policy of opening meetings with prayers appeared headed to a solid victory in early returns Tuesday.
Measure I, leading more than 3-1 in initial results, was drafted to seek residents' approval of current policy to select clergy of different faiths to open meetings with invocations "without restricting the content based on their beliefs, including references to Jesus Christ."
The initiative had drawn attention from outside the Antelope Valley city because of its implications for advocates on both sides of constitutional church-and-state issues.
Unlike many American legislative bodies that begin proceedings with non-sectarian prayers, Lancaster's city council and planning commission arrange for invocations to be led by religious leaders and allow them to refer to specific faiths and deities as long as they don't blatantly proselytize.
Though a plan adopted in September calls for the invocation leaders to be selected randomly, most have been representatives of the city's predominant Christian community, angering many in a town whose residents include Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus and Buddhists as well as non-believers.
Last summer, the American Civil Liberties Union wrote to Lancaster officials calling their invocation policy unconstitutional and threatening legal action.
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris and the city council responded by putting the issue on the ballot in the form of Measure I, seeking voters' approval for the city to continue selecting local clergy to deliver invocations.
The issue heated up in late January when Parris, in a series of State of the City speeches, told an audience of pastors and their spouses that Lancaster is "a growing Christian community."
The comment riled Muslims, already upset about Lancaster city councilwoman Sherry Marquez's remark on Facebook days earlier that "beheadings (and) honor killings" are "what the Muslim religion is all about."
Parris eventually apologized for his "Christian community" statement and called for "interfaith dialogue" but campaigned for Measure I.
In other votes Tuesday in Lancaster, Parris was well ahead in his bid for re-election for mayor over a field of four challengers. Council member and vice mayor Ron Smith was leading in his bid for re-election, while businessman Marvin Crist was poised to take the second available council seat over candidates Victoria Zavala, Johnathon Ervin, David Abber and Michael Rives.
Lancaster's Measure M, to set a four-year term for mayor, was leading by a comfortable margin, while Measure C to adopt a charter form of government was also well ahead.
But it was Measure I that was expected to be the most controversial item on the ballot.
Advocates for the separation of church and state have contended Lancaster's official prayers would face the same legal fate as a similar policy in Burbank that was struck down by courts in the early 2000s.
Measure I opponents argued a "yes" vote could cost Lancaster hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Parris acknowledged the possibility of a legal challenge but said a court should know if Lancaster residents support the prayer policy.
Measure I proponents said even though the prayers before city meetings usually were conducted by leaders from particular faiths, they weren't meant to make people of other faiths feel excluded.
"From the beginning, our country has sought the protection, the wisdom, the favor of God," Cary Schmidt, associate pastor of Lancaster Baptist Church, said in February. "We're just in favor that that continues."
Foes proposed alternatives such as moments of silence that would allow individual city officials and meeting-goers to decide how - and if - they want to pray.
"The religious right has deceptively created the impression that those of us who are for the separation of church and state are against religion," Roger Jon Diamond, a Santa Monica-based attorney who argued the case against Burbank's policy, said in February. "The separation protects religion. It's not good that the mayor and city council get involved in it."