Huntington Beach City Council members are facing renewed questions over who gets to deliver invocations before their public meetings after giving Mayor Tony Strickland the sole ability to pick who prays. 

It comes after Strickland and the council majority said numerous residents were complaining about the old prayer policy, alleging it became politicized.

Yet a Voice of OC review of complaints found the opposite – most residents complained against the proposed changes. 

[Read: How Many Residents Really Complained About Prayers at Huntington Beach City Council Meetings?]

At last Tuesday’s meeting, Councilwoman Natalie Moser said the new policy could create a “constitutional dilemma,” pointing out that Strickland had chosen exclusively Christian chaplains since barring religious leaders from the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council in February. 

“What I’ve seen since the February 21st decision is having our chaplains come, and I appreciate the words they’ve said,” Moser said. “However, they’re all Christian and you chose them to be here.”

Before the abrupt prayer policy change, faith leaders of all the major religions gave meeting invocations. 

In a Thursday interview, Strickland said that he would continue using the city’s Christian police and fire chaplains for a while, but would start reaching out to leaders of other faiths. 

He also made it clear that it would not include members of the Interfaith Council. 

“They sent people over to give speeches and I’m trying to shy away from political speeches,” Strickland said. “We want people to just give a prayer.” 

At their meeting last Tuesday, Moser suggested they replace the existing invocation with a moment of silence until city leaders could figure out a more inclusive system to let multiple faiths pray. 

Council members voted 4-2 to approve the mayor’s policy, with Councilwomen Natalie Moser and Rhonda Bolton voting against it while Councilman Dan Kalmick abstained. 

[Read: Huntington Beach Leaders Considering Removing Prayer from City Meetings]

The city used to tap the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council for that job, but the council’s new conservative majority voted to remove them in February after a local rabbi criticized Councilwoman Gracey Van Der Mark outside the invocation. 

Rabbi Stephen Einstein didn’t call out Van Der Mark directly during his invocation on the night of Dec. 6, the same night she was sworn in, but pointed to spikes in hate over recent years. 

“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.” 

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

At the time, the council asked for city staff to come back with a policy on how to handle invocations in the future. 

Since the removal of the Interfaith Council, the city has exclusively used Christian chaplains from the fire and police departments to give invocations appointed by Strickland, a move that Moser protested as she sought the reinstatement of the interfaith group. 

“I’ve heard from some that I must be morally bankrupt for bringing this forward,” Moser said at the council’s meeting last Tuesday. “I’m trying to make sure we create a constitutionally sound policy that is inclusive of the entire community.” 

“If we can’t do that, we have the option for a moment of silence,” she continued. “It is not my preference, but it might be where we are.”

The vast majority of people during public comment criticized the idea of replacing prayer with a moment of silence, with the crowd of largely Christians arguing that that prayer was an essential part of opening their meeting. 

“If there was ever a time we need prayer for our city and our country. It is now,” said Woody Woodruff in an email to the council. “In fact, we should be looking to put it back into our schools and to include prayer in our government more often.” 

Others argued that a moment of silence was the best way to represent everyone, allowing people the option to pray to any deity or none if they don’t believe. 

“If the HB City Council wanted to be inclusive, there is no way with only approximately 24 meetings a year to include everyone’s viewpoint or faith,” said Cathey Ryder at the meeting. “The best way to truly represent everyone is to allow for a moment of silence or reflection so that each person attending … can prepare their hearts and minds.” 

City Manager Al Zelinka and City Attorney Michael Gates said they didn’t have time to create new invocation rules.

But someone else did. 

Mayor Strickland pointed to the state Assembly’s model for invocations, where he used to serve as an assemblyman, which allows the speaker of the assembly to choose who gives an invocation. 

Strickland said the same rules should apply to the mayor’s seat, which cycles between council members once a year. 

“There was no policy that ever gave the Interfaith Council the ability to give these prayers,” Strickland said. “There’s many government organizations who have this exact same policy.”

While Gates never reviewed Strickland’s proposed policy, his chief assistant Mike Vigliotta did, and he signed off on the policy. 

“As long as he’s not … telling the person giving the invocation what to say I think we’re fine,” Vigliotta said. 

Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton questioned how city staff said no policy was created, while at the same time reviewing Strickland’s proposal. 

“I thought you said there was no policy developed, but it sounds like something was researched,” Bolton said. 

Strickland pledged that he would try to bring in other faiths, but said that it was ultimately his decision. 

“I checked with Mike Vigliotta, they gave me the green light,” Strickland said. “Call the roll.” 

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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