Huntington Beach leaders have spent the last three months wrestling with how to handle prayer during their meetings.
Now, one councilwoman is proposing ending it altogether until city leaders can come up with an inclusive approach.
Traditionally, the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council has nominated religious leaders to speak at the council’s religious invocation, offering a variety of speakers from different faiths.
But the council’s new Republican majority ordered the drafting of new rules that would have the city choose who can give an invocation in February, saying the current process was too politicized.
[Read: Huntington Beach Looks To Limit Who Leads Prayers Before Meetings]
To fill in, the city has had chaplains from the police and fire departments of the Christian faith offer a prayer at the start of each meeting, but there’s been no update to when a new policy is coming.
Councilwoman Natalie Moser, the most outspoken critic of the city’s shift away from the Interfaith Council on the dais, is proposing the city instead just holds a moment of silence during invocations to avoid the appearance of any faiths receiving favoritism.
“While the Chaplain’s service during this transition period is greatly appreciated, it is not the rotating system that Council has requested,” Moser wrote in a memo to her council colleagues. “(A moment of silence) would lend the same solemnity that invocations do, while respecting the diversity of faiths and beliefs of our community.”
In an interview with Voice of OC, Moser said while she didn’t want to move forward with only a moment of silence, it’s the city’s best option until they find a more inclusive route.
“I know it’s possible to do it right, but all I’ve seen so far is nothing, and what I have seen is only one faith group represented in that time,” Moser said of the council’s current policy. “If we can’t do that, then we have the option for a moment of silence, and while it’s not my preference that may be where we’re at.”
Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark, who proposed the new invocation process, did not return requests for comment from Voice of OC, but pledged to fight Moser’s idea at Calvary Chapel of the Harbour’s Sunday service when she was invited on stage.
“The issue that concerns us is an item that was brought forward to eliminate prayer at the beginning of our meetings and substitute it with a moment of silence,” Van Der Mark said. “I never thought we’d be standing here fighting to continue having prayer.”
Van Der Mark also encouraged the church attendees to either show up at the meeting or write a letter protesting Moser’s idea.
“We still have a country that has freedom of religion,” said senior pastor Joe Pedick. “This is all ridiculous, this is all an attack to shut down God…we need to fight for this country but it starts here in Huntington Beach.”
Pedick then prayed over Van Der Mark and the rest of the council’s conservative majority and wished them luck in the Tuesday night vote.
Moser called Van Der Mark’s remarks at the church “inappropriate,” and said she’s already received emails calling her “morally bankrupt,” or that she’s trying to eliminate prayer.
“The reality is I’m trying to create a constitutionally sound policy that represents the entire community,” Moser said.
Van Der Mark and the rest of the majority’s complaints revolved around Rabbi Stephen Einstein, a member of the Interfaith Council, claiming his prayer in front of city leaders on Dec. 6 was politically biased.
Councilman Dan Kalmick said that Moser sponsored Einstein for that invocation, but both said that there was no political motivation behind it.
“There wasn’t a lot of thought put into it. Let me put it that way. There wasn’t scheming,” Kalmick said in an interview last month. “There wasn’t like an analysis with a whiteboard and a spreadsheet. This was literally like a 30 second conversation.”
While Einstein did not openly state any political views during his invocation, he has been a vocal critic of Van Der Mark over the last several years, calling for her to be investigated in 2018 after she posted material online he described as anti-semitic, Islamophobic and racist.
While Van Der Mark was not removed from her post on the city’s finance commission at the time, she was removed from posts with the Ocean View School District.
Mayor Tony Strickland also claimed he’d received “hundreds,” of complaints about the invocation system, but a Voice of OC public records request found most complaints submitted to the city were over the council’s proposed new system, not the old one.
[Read: How Many Residents Really Complained About Prayers at Huntington Beach City Council Meetings?]
In an April interview, Van Der Mark claimed many of the complaints she received were in person or on social media and wouldn’t show up in a public records request.
The council meets at 6 p.m. on Tuesday night, and the meeting will be livestreamed to the city’s YouTube channel.
Noah Biesiada is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @NBiesiada.
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