LONGVIEW, Wash. - Longview clergy who perform the opening invocation at City Council meetings have been directed not to mention Jesus Christ by the city's mayor.
With the potential for a lawsuit looming, Mayor Don Jensen told the head of the Kelso-Longview Ministerial Association that the invocation must be nonsectarian.
The new rule means that God can be mentioned, but that's it.
Longview's city attorney said there's legal precedent allowing God to be mentioned during government meetings, but the law is less clear on whether mentioning Jesus Christ advances or promotes Christianity.
That led the mayor to talk with the Christian ministers, which in turn led them to declare they will no longer perform the invocations.
"They've asked us for years to schedule those invocations and we are those who believe Jesus is the Son of God," North Lake Baptist Church Pastor Mark Schmutz said.
He said the opening prayer that's been a tradition at Longview City Hall for generations may now be a thing of the past after Jensen told him "we need no longer speak the name of Jesus or Jesus Christ or even use the pronouns He or Him."
Schmutz said the mayor made it clear the prayer now needs to be nonsectarian in an effort to satisfy residents who attend council meetings and complain about the Christian references.
"We could say God and we could end with Amen but we shouldn't be specific about which religion or which God we're calling upon," Schmutz said.
But Longview's most outspoken atheist, Dan L. Smith, said invocations shouldn't be tweaked, they should disappear from the agenda altogether.
"I do not want public prayer in my public building," he said. "If I could have it my way there would be no religious – start the meetings with the banging of the gavel, and let's go."
To make his point, Smith has written Longview's mayor and city attorney mentioning, he says, not threatening, the possibility of a lawsuit.
"People talk about lawsuits on a regular basis and nobody wants litigation, so you get to this place where it's just easier not than to fight this fight," Schmutz said.
Schmutz said he understands the pressure city leaders face, but you won't see him at the next council meeting censoring his own beliefs.
"We are ministers of the Gospel of Jesus and to not speak the name goes past our own convictions,” he said.
Mayor Jensen could not be reached for comment Wednesday night. But city attorney Jim McNamara said the decision by the Ministerial Association does not mean the invocations will not continue.
The City Council did not have an invocation at its last meeting. It's not clear if there will be an invocation at the Council's next meeting a week from Thursday.