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Councilman takes 'moment' for Christianity at meetings

Union Tribune (2007-09-27) Liz Neely

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More Info: Church State Separation, El Cajon City Council, Local Politics

By Liz Neely

Union Tribune STAFF WRITER

September 27, 2007

Some cities in San Diego County begin their government meetings with a prayer, careful not to favor one religion over another. But an El Cajon councilman is making his faith a regular part of the agenda.

Bob Mc Clellan began his “Bob's Constitutional Moments” during City Council meetings this month. Mixing historical quotes and commentary, the four-term councilman suggests the nation's founders didn't want a separation of church and state – especially when it came to Christianity.

Mc Clellan, an evangelical Christian, has never been shy about bringing religion into City Hall. He's offered a Christian prayer from the dais and arranged for the airing of Christian-themed videos on El Cajon's government-access channel.

No one has challenged the legality of his “constitutional moments,” but some have questioned whether it's appropriate for an elected official to promote a faith-tinged view of history during a government meeting.

Mc Clellan thinks so. “People need to be informed about our true history,” he said in an interview.

Legally, governments can get into trouble when they advance one faith over another during meetings. In 2002, a state appeals court upheld a ruling that any prayer must be nonsectarian. Invoking Jesus Christ or Muhammad, for example, is deemed unconstitutional.

Most local cities try to maintain the distinction between church and state. Del Mar, Solana Beach, Imperial Beach and Chula Vista avoid prayer at government meetings. Others, like San Diego and San Marcos, invite people of various faiths to say a few words.

All faiths are welcome in National City, Mayor Ron Morrison said, but the invocations are coordinated by a Christian pastor, and the prayers are almost always Christian.

The American Civil Liberties Union has warned local municipalities, including Oceanside and La Mesa, about favoring one religion during an invocation.

The El Cajon council usually asks for a moment of silence, as it did at its meeting Sept. 11. But during council reports, Mc Clellan read a quote attributed to Fisher Ames, a Federalist politician of the 1790s, emphasizing the importance of the Bible in education.

Mc Clellan followed the quote with this: “I think we have a tremendous problem in this nation, that we're trying to eliminate religious activity, especially Christian, in our public lives and in our monuments and things of that nature, and I think this needs to be corrected.”

Mc Clellan said he gets most of his material from Wall Builders. The Texas-based organization produces videos such as “The Role of Pastors & Christians in Civil Government” and “America's Godly Heritage.”

The programs intertwine history lessons and Bible scriptures and, at Mc Clellan's suggestion, were shown on El Cajon's Channel 24 for four years. They were pulled by the city manager in October after a complaint by Raymond Lutz, president of the East County Democratic Club.

A watchdog organization says Mc Clellan's presentations are a distortion of history meant to advance one faith.

“It's not illegal to discuss phony history or to promote phony history, but it's a pretty foolish thing for a city council to do,” said Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Lynn said Mc Clellan cherry-picks information to make his points. Mc Clellan said he relies on historical documents collected by Wall Builders.

David Blair-Loy, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial Counties, said his organization may disagree with what Mc Clellan says but would defend his right to say it.

“What we are against is the government endorsing religion, but an individual has the right to his opinion,” Blair-Loy said.

Others are less tolerant of “Bob's Constitutional Moments.”

“This is typical of Bob Mc Clellan trying to mix church and state,” Lutz said. “Every time he does (it), I'm going to come up to the lectern and give an opposing point of view.”

At Tuesday's council meeting, Mc Clellan read from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association. Mc Clellan gave no commentary this time, but his reading prompted Councilman Dick Ramos to call on his colleagues to eliminate “Bob's Constitutional Moments.” They refused.

“As far as I'm concerned, if you want to say anything at council, it should have to do with the city's business or something that affects the city,” Ramos said in an interview.

Mayor Mark Lewis is the one who suggested “Bob's Constitutional Moments.” Lewis said he thought Mc Clellan “got shortchanged” when the city manager removed the Wall Builders videos from Channel 24.

“I'm a born-again Christian and unless they (residents) elect all heathens, we're going to sneak a prayer in once in a while,” Lewis said.

Staff librarian Erin Hobbs contributed to this report.

Bob Mc Clellan's “Constitutional Moment”

From the Sept. 11 El Cajon City Council meeting:

“I have a little interesting fact, a constitutional moment.

Fisher Ames was one of the founding fathers of America. He was actually the man that gave us the wording for the First Amendment and this is what he had to say. . . . He said, 'Why should not the Bible regain the place it once held in the school book? Its morals are pure, its examples captivating and noble. The reverence for the sacred book that is thus early impressed lasts long, and probably, if not impressed in infancy, never takes firm hold in the mind.'

So, you know, we have a thing in the United States about separation of church and state. Well, this doesn't sound like he had that in mind when he wrote the wording for the First Amendment, which basically says that Congress shall not establish religion nor prevent the free exercise thereof, and I think we have a tremendous problem in this nation, that we're trying to eliminate religious activity, especially Christian, in our public lives and in our monuments and things of that nature, and I think this needs to be corrected, and I think the people need to be educated in that way, and I will bring other things to mention in the future on this item.”

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Title Councilman takes 'moment' for Christianity at meetings
Publisher Union Tribune
Author Liz Neely
Pub Date 2007-09-27
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Keywords Church State Separation, El Cajon City Council, Local Politics
Media Type Linked Article
Media Group News
Author Name Sortable Neely, Liz
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Topic revision: r3 - 13 Sep 2009, RaymondLutz
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