City Attorney Bill McClure talked to The Almanac on Jan. 25, defending the city's decision to allow the First Church of Christ, Scientist Menlo Park, to host a Jan. 24 lecture titled "Prayer and the Environment" in the council chambers, located at the Civic Center.
Mr. McClure said the city has no policy regarding who can or cannot use the council chambers, so the government facility must remain open to all organizations. As long as a group doesn't hold an event to commit, or conspire to commit, an illegal act, the city has no right to deny the use of the chambers, he said.
"The city can't discriminate on the basis of the message or beliefs, or the content of the speech of an organization," Mr. McClure said.
Local residents and nonprofits are charged $125 per hour to use the chambers; non-local residents and nonprofits pay $160 per hour, and businesses are charged $190 per hour.
Past groups to use the chambers for events include local real estate groups, the Boy Scouts of America, and Kepler's Books and Magazines, Mr. McClure said.
Church and state
The debate about the council chambers kicked off Jan. 15, when Menlo Park resident and frequent council watcher Martin Engel and his wife, Judith Orasanu, requested that the city withdraw permission for the church to use the chambers in order to ensure the separation of church and state.
"We do not believe that it is legal or appropriate to provide a venue in a public civic facility for a 'Prayer and Environment' presentation by any religious group, seemingly under the auspices of the Menlo Park city government," Mr. Engel and Ms. Orasanu wrote in a letter that was sent to council members and appeared in The Almanac last week.
The letter ignited a community debate about free speech and the separation of church and state, including more than 60 comments in the Town Square forum on TheAlmanacOnline.com.
The letter also prompted a response from members of the First Church of Christ, Scientist.
"I don't think there's anything sacred or secular about the brick and mortar of that building," said Elizabeth Schwartz of Menlo Park, the church member who organized the Jan. 24 lecture. Ms. Schwartz said about 150 people attended the event.
Church member Gregory Conlon of Atherton, an attorney, sent a Jan. 24 letter to council members and the Almanac, emphasizing a point stressed by Mr. McClure: Closing the council chambers to religious groups would violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
Drafting a policy
City Manager Glen Rojas said city staff is drafting a policy about the use of the council chambers to avoid future confusion about who can or can't use the facility.
A draft policy could go before the council as soon as next month, he said.