A California mayor has drawn criticism for stating that his city is a “Christian community.”
Mayor R. Rex Parris of Lancaster, Calif., made the controversial comments during a “State of the City” address in late January.
“We’re growing a Christian community, and don’t let anybody shy away from that,” Parris said. “I need [Lancaster residents] standing up and saying we’re a Christian community, and we’re proud of that.”
He went on to insist that ministers should have the right to open meetings of the city council using sectarian references, such as “in Jesus’ name” – an issue that has divided the community recently and that will appear on the ballot next month.
Parris’ comments offended local Muslims, who have been speaking out.
On Feb. 5, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the matter. The Council alleges that Parris violated the civil rights of non-Christians.
Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR’s Los Angeles Chapter, called Parris’ comments “unhealthy, unconstitutional and very divisive.”
Ayloush continued, “The role of any faith, of religion in general, is needed as much as the role of government.... Our concern is when the wall of separation is blurred.” Lancaster, a community about an hour north of Los Angeles, has a population of 145,000. The city’s Web site lists area houses of worship. They include dozens of Christian churches but also two synagogues, an Islamic center, a New Thought church and a Unitarian-Universalist fellowship.
Reacting to the controversy, Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn sent Parris a letter explaining to him why he is wrong and should apologize.
“Aside from being inaccurate, your comments are insensitive and divisive,” Lynn wrote. “I urge you to issue a prompt public apology and affirm your support for the fundamental constitutional principle of church-state separation.”
Lynn also noted that if the city moves forward with its plan to permit sectarian prayers before council meetings, litigation will almost certainly result, and the city will lose because the legal precedent is against them.
“A California appeals court held in Rubin v. Burbank that the presentation of sectarian prayers at city council meetings runs afoul of the federal Constitution,” Lynn pointed out. “Lancaster has no greater chance of succeeding in litigation than did the City of Burbank.”
With the controversy growing, Parris reversed course and issued an apology, saying that he seeks interfaith dialogue. The Daily News reported that Parris said he wants people of all faiths to have “a vibrant role in the community.”