A majority of Huntington Beach City Council members are looking to crack down on what they’re calling highly politicized invocations – the prayers and speeches delivered at the beginning of their meetings.

They are directing the city manager and city attorney to come back with a policy to create a list of religious leaders, evaluate those leaders and create a rotating system for them to offer prayers at city council meetings.

“In very recent years, the greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, which the city has utilized for invocations has become highly political and invocations at times have become political soapboxing opportunities,” said Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark at the Feb. 21 meeting.

Maneck Bhujwala, president of the interfaith council, said in a Friday interview that council members didn’t speak to the group before requesting the change.

He also said the interfaith council is concerned city council members won’t be able to maintain the same diversity of speakers.

“Our mission has been to help promote cultural diversity and beauty and all that and so we do have a concern that they might not maintain the diversity and that’s something we have to see,” Bhujwala said.

In the two meetings since the policy was brought into question, Christian police and fire chaplains have performed the invocation. 

Van Der Mark along with Mayor Tony Strickland requested the policy and received support from Councilmembers Pat Burns and Casey McKeon – the new city council majority that was elected last year.

Neither Van Der Mark nor Strickland responded to emailed questions from the Voice of OC.

Strickland said the evaluation would ensure people delivering the invocation are from a faith-based group and not a “hate group, for example.” He also said there have been “hundreds” of complaints about the invocations.

“I believe a prayer should be nondenominational – include all faiths – but also not be a political statement and they have been political statements,” Strickland said at the meeting.

“I don’t think that’s appropriate for this body,” he said. “It’s very important that we have non-political prayers and prayers that include all faiths,” Strickland said at the meeting.

Pushing back on the majority, Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton said she hasn’t received any complaints.

“I have serious concerns about the city getting into the business of evaluating religious associations. I don’t know that anybody here on the dias is qualified to evaluate who is ordained,” she said at the meeting.

“We should just leave this process to the Interfaith Council.”

Members of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council showed up to the Feb . 21 meeting and said that city council members did not consult them before proposing the policy and encouraged them to connect with their group before moving forward.

“We feel that the resolution is trending into territory that may cause the city further complications in the future. My suggestion is to meet with the leadership of the council and to consult on the existing processes to see where improvements may be made,” said Mark Currie, the treasurer of the interfaith council.

A Voice of OC review did not find any prayers explicitly containing the alleged political soapboxing in the three months since the new majority took office. 

Bhujwala said Van Der Mark and Strickland met with the interfaith council last week and he questioned them on which invocation was political.

“I reviewed the invocation on the recording for most of last year and did not see that there was anything obviously political,” he said.

Bhujwala said the mayor and Van Der Mark were only able to point to one invocation. 

He did not wish to specify which one until the interfaith council spoke to the person who provided the invocation.

“All I can say is that they could not show a very clear, clear link, about a political invocation,” Bhujwala said.

One of the invocations delivered in recent months was given by a Rabbi who has criticized Van Der Mark before.

At the Dec. 6 city council meeting when the new council majority was sworn into office, the invocation was delivered by Rabbi Stephen Einstein from the Congregation of B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley.

Einstein is also one of the founders of the Interfaith Council. 

During his speech on the night of Van Der Mark’s inauguration, Einstein didn’t mention any complaints with her, but pointed to spikes in hate over the past few years. 

[Read: Orange County Struggles to Curb Increasing Hate Incidents]

“Hatred has become normalized between individuals of differing political viewpoints and even expressed in acts of violence,” Einstein said. “On this night … we all join in a prayer for God’s blessing upon those entrusted with leadership.” 

“May they constantly seek fair and equal justice for all.” 

In 2018, Einstein criticized Van Der Mark, who was on Surf City’s Finance Commission at the time, for posting material online he described as anti-semitic, Islamophobic and racist. At the time, he called on the city council to investigate.

“It is my urgent request that you look into this and investigate it and then take whatever appropriate action you deem as right,” Einstein said in 2018.

Van Der Mark was not removed from the finance commission, but was removed from two committees in Huntington Beach’s local school districts.

Councilwoman Natalie Moser at the Feb. 21 meeting asked why Strickland did not speak to the interfaith council before bringing forth the proposed policy and called the policy highly inappropriate.

“Something can be uncomfortable for us, that doesn’t make it a political statement,” Moser said. “This one blew me away.”

“It should be going first as a conversation with the Interfaith Council because that’s the respectful and appropriate thing to do.”

Van Der Mark pushed back on Moser.

“Another thing that is inappropriate is to have rules then have council members meddle in the invocations and pick and choose who they’re going to have,” she said. “We need to establish safeguards so that this is a truly neutral process.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at nbiesiada@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @NBiesiada.

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