Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris
Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris
Lancaster city officials' policy of opening meetings with prayers won overwhelming support from voters Tuesday.

Slightly more than 75 percent of voters in the Antelope Valley community said "yes" to Measure I, drafted to seek residents' support for officials 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 Lancaster 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.


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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.

The initiative won 75.8 percent of the 12,301 votes counted late Tuesday night.

That capped a good night for Parris, who was re-elected handily over four challengers and saw voters approve a measure changing Lancaster mayors' terms in office from two years to four.

Of the issues on the ballot, Measure I had inspired the sharpest debate.

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."