Hundreds of people.

That’s the amount of residents Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland publicly stated complained that invocations – prayers – at city meetings were being politicized.

It is what he said led him and Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark to call for a policy governing prayer at city council meetings and dictating who can deliver the blessing – removing the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council out of the process.

[Read: Huntington Beach Looks To Limit Who Leads Prayers Before Meetings]

However, public records released by the city following a Voice of OC request under state law shows that emailed complaints received on invocations had nothing to do with the prayers being political.

Instead, emailed protests to the city revolved around Strickland’s proposed restrictive policy itself.

Councilman Dan Kalmick called it a “manufactured issue” in a Monday phone call and said there are more important issues the city needs to be focusing on right now.

“This is manufactured outrage. The fact that the mayor stated that hundreds of people have reached out to him sounds like a lie to me. We haven’t gotten a single email,” he said.

Kalmick is also concerned that the proposed policy could trigger lawsuits for the city. 

“I don’t want the city to be in the business of selecting religious leaders and certifying them for an invocation, it just opens us to liability,” he said. “If we’re going to have a problem with it, we should just get rid of the invocation altogether.”

Van Der Mark said the complaints she received were on social media and in person.

“I know people are not happy with the way it was being done. It was politicized,” she said.

Strickland did not respond to a request for comment.

Councilwoman Natalie Moser said in a Monday phone interview that there had been a couple of emails criticizing Rabbi Stephen Einstein’s invocation at the Dec. 6 inaugural meeting but not 100.

There were no emails critical of Einstein submitted to the Voice of OC in the city’s response to the records request.

Yet Moser did acknowledge that there was a verbal backlash that night to Einstein’s speech.

“That night, people in the audience did scream out and interrupt Rabbi Einstein’s invocation and said, ‘What about the Christians?’ – Multiple different people – when he was speaking about the hate crimes that were on the rise in Orange County,” she said.

Officials Accuse Rabbi of Politicized Prayer

Other council members have said their concerns aren’t so much for the community, but complaints about one man – Einstein.  

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

During his speech on the night of the inauguration, Einstein didn’t mention any complaints with specific council members, 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.” 

Van Der Mark said that invocation was politicized.

“It was supposed to be a light transition from the old council members to the new council members, and he starts talking about different genders, different religions,” she said.

“He actually said on there that hate had been normalized, and those are not appropriate words for an invocation that’s supposed to remain neutral, and bring in peace.”

Kalmick and Moser disagree that the prayer was political.

“You’d be hard pressed to see that it was anything different than all the other invocations we’ve ever received,” he said.

Einstein, a founder of the interfaith council, also doesn’t believe any of the invocations, including his own, were political.

“I spoke in favor of trying to find a way for people to live together harmoniously, and in peace, and so on,” he said in a Monday phone interview.

“Now, in today’s world, maybe some people think that’s making a political statement. I don’t know. To me, it’s a basic religious value and a basic human value.”

He noted that he has spoken out during public comments on certain issues in Huntington Beach and other cities but not during the invocation.

Moser said the policy is personal for Van Der Mark.

“And, frankly, petty, and it’s really an insult to the really good people of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council,” she said.

When asked if the policy was retaliation for Einstein’s criticism of her, Van Der Mark said that Einstein never had a conversation with her about his concern, and that her husband is Jewish and her cousins are Muslim.

She also said Einstein supported her opponent and that during her campaign, her signs had been vandalized with the words Nazi and that her and son’s cars were shot at with pellet guns.

“When somebody of his position has absolutely zero regard for the truth, and for someone’s safety that person should not be around and giving invocations,” Van Der Mark said.

Einstein said no one forced Van Der Mark to post the material she did back in 2018.

“I think it is horrendous that anybody would act in a malicious manner or a violent manner against someone because they disagree with their point of view. I’m horrified and saddened to hear that Gracey and her family faced anything like that,” he added. 

Van der Mark could not point out another specific invocation she felt was politicized.

Councilman Pat Burns said his primary concern was with Einstein’s invocation. 

“I just don’t want to see a repeat of what that rabbi did the night we got sworn in,” Burns said in an interview with Voice of OC. “I don’t want to see any kind of thing like that again.” 

Burns says Einstein was put up for that invocation by Councilmembers Dan Kalmick and Natalie Moser, and that he didn’t want to see invocations become a political weapon. 

Burns and Van Der Mark said that the council should have no power to select who speaks at the meetings for political purposes. 

“I wouldn’t advocate for us using someone who is against the minority council,” Burns said. “It’s an invocation! My God, that’s one place where we can come to agree, just bow your heads, and let’s not turn it into some type of tool. I think it’s just divisive.” 

Kalmick said that traditionally the incoming mayor – which he presumed would be himself based on the city’s rotational system of selecting the mayor – gets to pick who gives the invocation at the inaugural meeting.

He however was passed over for Mayor and Strickland was chosen instead. 

“Councilmember Moser called and said who do you want to do the invocation? And I said, I don’t know. I’m not really in that space. And she said, ‘What about Rabbi Einstein?’ I said sure it seems fine,” said Kalmick, who is Jewish.

“There wasn’t a lot of thought put into it. Let me put it that way. There wasn’t scheming. There wasn’t like an analysis with a whiteboard and a spreadsheet. This was literally like a 30 second conversation.”

Moser echoed his remarks and said she suggested Einstein because he is a good friend and shared some of the concerns he highlighted in his prayer about the increase in hate.

She also pointed out the agendas for the Interfaith council lists who will be giving the invocations at future meetings. The November 29 agenda Moser provided showed Church of Jesus Christ’s Jynene Johnson or the Mayor’s choice for the Dec. 6 meeting invocation.

Kalmick said had the majority known he wasn’t going to be mayor beforehand it would have been a Brown Act violation.

Van Der Mark said the interfaith council is supposed to remain neutral.

“They were brought in so that council members can’t pick and choose who does the invocation on a regular basis and to not give preference to any religion or group,” she said.

Who Complained?

On March 10, Voice of OC filed a request for all the electronic complaints received about the invocations at city council meetings since November 2022. 

The city responded on March 14 with a handful of emails, marking the request as completed on their public records portal.

The response included opposition emails towards the proposed policy from five people and another person wrote against having such prayers at city council meetings but did not accuse any of the previous prayers as being political.

“That two members of the city council could propose such an Orwellian policy is troubling. Such a policy would clearly be unconstitutional,” wrote Dan Jamieson, an opponent, to council members.

He also said there was no evidence of “political soapboxing.”

“The unspoken agenda of the item appears to be a desire to have evangelicals give invocations at council meetings.”

In the city’s response, there were no emails in favor of Strickland and Van Der Mark’s policy.

One of the emails criticizing the policy was from Einstein.

“Taking the honor of the invocations away from the (Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council) will be seen as both insulting and politically motivated,” Einstein wrote in an email to the council.

The rabbi also worries the city may be running into a constitutional problem with the proposed policy.

“If they’re only picking, for example, members of one particular religious group then it looks like they’re establishing, if you will, that as the official religion of the cities, which certainly is wrong,” he said Monday.

While city leaders are still figuring out what the future of invocations will look like, the city council has had police and fire department chaplain Roger Wing give the invocation at every meeting since Feb. 7. 

A decision was made unilaterally by Strickland to have city chaplains do the prayers, according to Van Der Mark.  

“We don’t need a public vote. It’s kind of like an interim solution. Whether it’s going to become permanent or not. I’m not sure,” she said, noting they have chaplains from different religions.

Kalmick said it is unclear if the Mayor can make that type of decision alone.

“The mayor has done things that I believe are not within his purview without the vote of the council.”

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

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