Roundtable: ACLU Vs. Escondido
Why, for God's sake, is the City of Escondido being threatened with legal action by the ACLU? If we reflect on this, we come to see the problem is the moment of "reflection" that has been instituted at the beginning of council meetings. The ACLU claims people have been talking a little too much about the power of a Heavenly Father and of Jesus Christ. David Garrick of the North County Times has been giving this story his full reflection.
Will Carless, reporter, Voiceofsandiego.org
Mark Sauer, senior editor, KPBS News
David Garrick, reporter, North County Times
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FUDGE: Why, for God's sake, is the city of Escondido being threatened with legal action by the ACLU? If we reflect on this, we come to see the problem is the moment of reflection that has been instituted at the beginning of council meetings. The ACLU claims people have been talking a little too much about the power of a heavenly father and of Jesus Christ. David Garrick of the North County times has been giving this story his full reflection. David, when did this become an issue.
SAUER: I guess been the last 2 or 3†weeks. This summer. Some people who attend meetings or watch them on television, not sure wish, notified the ACLU that they -- ACLU that the phrase Jesus and heavenly father was being said too frequently, and that it seemed like an endorsement of Christianity by the City Council. There's been no other mention of other faiths in the City Council in over five years. Of the City Council doesn't give you their agenda or give you a copy of what they say. Their argument is, we stay out of it. We don't recruit the speakers, don't tell them what to say, we don't force them to submit their speech beforehand. So they can say whatever they want.
FUDGE: If you have an opinion on what's going on in Escondido, you can give us a call. 1-888-895-5727. David, how long has the Escondido City Council had a moment of reflection?
SAUER: I talked to a man who served on the City Council from 1974 to 1998, and he said it's definitely pre74. So we don't know how long. Escondido was founded in 1888. But there was a hiatus between roughly 2,001 and 205, because the man who organized the speakers died. And a councilman came in and said I'd like to revive this. But the council only centers on the calendar year 2011.
FUDGE: Who does the moment of reflection?
SAUER: A vocal tear from a local church, Emanuel faith community church, organizes speakers and gets somebody to come in. He said he initially reached out to other faiths, in 2005, and hadn't been aggressive about it recently. And someone noticed that all the speakers are Christian, and nine out of ten this year have mentioned Jesus Christ or heavenly father.
FUDGE: This may violet the religious establishment clause of the constitution. Are they right.
SAUER: There's a case in Burbank that says cities can have moments of reflection as long as they handle it the way Escondido is handling it where they don't get involved in the process. But the truth maybe might be on the ACLU's side in the fact that you have to give the volunteer coordinator guidelines, urging people to keep it sectarian, keep it nondivisive, try to keep it fit for a wide ranging group that isn't of an particular religion. The question is, how do you get the people -- the speakers to abide by that. If they start saying Jesus, do you run up and tackle them? That's not the solution. So the question is, how do you get people to comply? And it's just warning them enough to keep you one the live.
FUDGE: And David, how has the City Council, how has the mayor of Escondido responded to this judge.
SAUER: Well, the counsel woman who brought it up basically said she thinks the ACLU was wrong, and by trying to control people, they're violating people's first amendment rights. The ACLU's comment is if they were to speak during the public comment period, that would be correct. But the fact that there's a special part of the agenda reserved for it, and that it's on the agenda listed as a moment of reflection, that gives the impression that the City Council is endorsing Christianity and making people who aren't Christian feel like second class citizens when they come to City Council meetings what if a nonbeliever wanted to get up and give the moment of reflection or a Muslim in this day and age.
SAUER: They say that would be okay. The question is, would they just eliminate a moment of reflection? Is this a bogus way of getting around the fact that you're not allowed to have prayer in a meeting or are they genuinely trying to be inclusive?
CARLESS: I think you're referring to guidelines given to the speakers. Is there any indication whether the guy, the volunteer who's going out there and bringing in these speakers is even passing on those guidelines.
SAUER: He says he is. We don't have a hidden camera there. And he seems like a genuine guy. But you're right. There is a question. If the speakers come once or twice or three times maybe they don't give it to them on the second or third time and they forget it. It's remarkable how polarizing this issue has been. The amount of people I talked to since this story rap, half say how can people not realize how wrong this is? And the other people of the people say to me, why are we being persecuted? All we want is a small prayer at the beginning of a meeting. This is like swatting out a gnat. And I haven't met anyone in the middle.
FUDGE: David Garrick is a reporter for the North County times. He's talking about a controversy involving a moment of reflection. Mark Sauer is also on the show, senior editor of KPBS News. And Will Carless is a reporter for VoiceofSanDiego.org. 1-888-895-5727. Let's go to Justin. Go ahead.
NEW SPEAKER: Thanks. I'm just wondering why the ACLU has to go so far as to start a lawsuit, especially when the cities already have financial problems. Why can't they just ask that the moment of reflection be cut out? I'm a Christian person, but I think it's highly inappropriate to be on one side of the issue and saying God's name or Buddha and other Christian religions as well, I think maybe it should just be cut out instead of going through a whole legal process that's gonna cost the city money.
SAUER: The ACLU sent the city a somewhat friendly letter saying please fix this. They don't want to do a lawsuit. But that's their only hammer. They're hoping they'll comply without any litigation.
CARLESS: This isn't the Soledad cross then.
GARRICK: You get into religion and look out.
THE COURT: It's interesting that will brought up the Soledad cross because I think one of the arguments that it is been made by the city, they're saying well, we don't choose the speakers. That's been done by a private person in somewhat the City of San Diego said oh, well, the Soledad cross is on private property. Therefore we're not violating the constitution.
GARRICK: Right. And if the person they chose were a member of the skeptic's society, what nature would the discussion take at that point.
SAUER: That was an interesting argument too. Of the council woman who started it said I couldn't find one. And the idea was, I didn't have a choice between six different people. And I chose someone Christian. No one was willing to do this. He came forward, he happened to be Christianity.
FUDGE: And in fact they're arguing that the local rabbis, Imams, are not necessarily coming forward and volunteering to do this.
SAUER: One thing about Escondido is it's highly Christian. There are no temples or synagogues in the city. It happens to be an extremely homogeneous city. That could have a unique effect on the city.
GARRICK: You saw New York as diverse a city we've got in the country, the whole thing over the Islam community center.
CARLESS: I was going to ask. Do you have to be from Escondido to come and do this?
SAUER: You don't.
CARLESS: You don't. Okay. So presumably any religious activist from any other religion in town could listen to this show and say, hey I'm going to go and --
SAUER: Maybe after my story, people will be banging down the door to come give this moment of reflection.
FUDGE: David, this looks like the way this is presented by the city or by the ACLU, it's represented as a tricky situation. But we have invocations in -- at the beginning of sessions of Congress, the legislatures. Supreme Court. We do this all the time. Upon how do they follow the rules? How do they get around this?
GARRICK: I guess they're not subject to California state law in the same way. One the of the counsel members brought it up. It's a tradition throughout the land. It happens in other places. Why should we be persecuted if? According to litigation in California, you have to do it a certain way and order people not to be divisive and nonsectarian.
CARLESS: Coming from England, one of the things that's always been so extraordinary to me is covering political meetings that this religious aspect has always shocked me. And do they still do the flag thing in school? Do they still say --
SAUER: And they say under god.
GARRICK: They never did that. It wasn't part of the pledge till the '50s. And in God we trust wasn't on our money until the '50s and the McArtian scare.
CARLESS: Nothing against Christianity. It's just that other countries find that kind of weird.
GARRICK: They don't have a prior from the church ever England.
CARLESS: Standing up and pledging allegiance to a plastic bag and a God is a completely alien concept, at least in England. I can speak to that.
SAUER: I was saying earlier, half the people I've talked to feel exactly like that. And there's another half that think it's just crazy that you would make a big deal out of something so innocent, doesn't hurt anyone, and allows people who believe to have a moment at the beginning of the meeting to put them in the right frame of mind.
FUDGE: And David Garrick is a reporter from the North County times. Joining me as well is mar sour, and Will Carless. We have a couple minutes left. I wanted to ask you, David, when can we expect to see some kind of resolution of this judge.
SAUER: The city attorney wrote the ACLU back a letter saying we think we're in compliance. If the ACLU decides to go a further step, we might say something. Otherwise it may be an attempt they'll abandon. They successfully persuaded Oceanside to fix theirs. They believe they could be successful here. I'm not sure.
FUDGE: Before we're done, I want to go back to you, Will Carless, I know we're changing subjects a second time. But I was asking you when we were talking about your affordable housing story, whether you got some reaction from -- official reaction to it, and you said that you have. Is this going to be a series? Are we going to see more on VoiceofSanDiego.org?
CARLESS: Yeah, absolutely. I've spent three months of my life reading documents and interviewing dozens of people and researching this. And I make the joke that I'm really about to quit my job and go and start an affordable housing development business because there's a lot of money in it. But no, in all seriousness, there's gonna be follow up blog posts, follow up stories. I've been taking a closer look at some of the work at the San Diego housing commission which is sort of the city's de facto affordable housing department, not really known very much about. But they're an extraordinarily powerful, big, control a massive budget. Just refinanced their properties to get about a hundred million dollars over the last couple of years to go outside and create more affordable housing. There's definitely gonna be more stories to come.
FUDGE: Will Carless is a reporter for VoiceofSanDiego.org. He just did an investigative story about the outrageous cost of affordable housing in the City of San Diego. And will, thanks for coming in.
CARLESS: Thank you Tom.
FUDGE: Thanks also to Mark Sauer, senior editor of KPBS news. Mark talked about the redistricting process in the City of San Diego that is creating a ninth City Council district. Thanks for coming in.
GARRICK: Pleasure to be here every day.
FUDGE: And last but not least, David Garrick is a reporter for the North County times. David did a story about the controversy over the religious implications of the moment of reflection in front of the Escondido City Council meeting. And David, thanks to you.
SAUER: Thanks for having me.
FUDGE: And listeners, you can leave a comment if you would leak to go on our website, KPBS.org. I'm Tom Fudge filling in for Gloria Penner on the Roundtable.