This is how Lodi Mayor Larry Hansen used to begin city council meetings:
Mayor Larry Hansen: “All right would you please stand for an invocation from Pastor Phil Orosco.”
Pastor: “Heavenly Father, I come to you in the name of Jesus…”
But some residents objected.
“We’re beyond this. This is 2009. We should not be having prayer at a city council meeting.”
David Diskin is an atheist who lives in Lodi. He helped create the group Lodi United – which supports the separation of church and state.
“Many of the people in Lodi United are religious. They go to church like many other people. But the city council meeting, just like school and just like at the workplace, it’s not a place for religion.”
Mayor Hansen says he has a strong belief in God and the prayers give him inner strength. But he says there’s a lot of passion on both sides. He’s received 800 e-mails from people all across the country.
“…some feeling very strongly that we should continue with prayer and others feeling very strongly that we should totally eliminate it.”
Hansen says he’s leaning towards keeping the invocations or prayers and opening them up to members of all faiths.
“…which would enable someone if they so choose to close the invocation in the name of Jesus Christ and if someone wants to pray to Allah or meditate about Buddha or whatever that the council should be open to all points of view on this issue.”
But Diskin says Lodi United doesn’t support that idea.
“If you look at statistically in the last two or three years when we’ve had a policy where anybody can come and pray, it’s been I think 97% or 96% Christian.”
Diskin says a better option would be a moment of silence. Mayor Hansen says that’s another alternative they’ll be considering.
City officials expect such a huge turnout for tonight’s meeting, they’re holding it at a 900-seat theater in Hutchins Street Square.