Atheist groups pressure City Council to fire chaplain, ban opening prayer

Protests from atheist groups have led to the Pismo Beach City Council firing its chaplain and ending its ritual opening prayer.

Although nonsectarian prayers in public meetings are allowed under Pismo Beach law, the city decided to forgo the prayers altogether.

The city's former official chaplain, Rev. Paul Jones, would begin most council meetings by leading a prayer that often included Christian references. Phrases that reference a deity, such as "Your Son and our Savior" and "Christ our Lord" are illegal in public meetings.

One plaintiff, Dr. Sari Dworkin, said in court filings that she felt "offended, disenfranchised, and intimidated" by the Christian references. Dworkin self-identifies as an atheist Jew, and stated that she had to attend meetings because of land-development issues

The Freedom From Religion Foundation and Atheists United filed a lawsuit against the California council in November regarding the prayers, and asked that the unpaid chaplain position be eliminated.

In order to save taxpayers the costs of a trial, the city decided to comply.

"In keeping with the city's goal of carefully managing taxpayer funds," city attorney David Fleishman said in a statement, "the City Council determined that it would not be a prudent use of public monies to contest the suit through trial."

The protesting atheist groups celebrated the decision.

"We're getting everything we asked for," Atheists United member David Leidner told The Tribune.

"I think what it means first and foremost is we have a government that is welcoming to all of its citizens. And it also means that we have protected the separation between church and state in our county."

The council will pay the plaintiffs a total of $2 in damages, and cover all of the plaintiffs' attorney fees-- $47,500. The proposed settlement must first be approved by a San Luis Obispo Superior Court judge.