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Religious event ignites debate

Original post made on Jan 29, 2008

As the debate continues over whether it was appropriate for a religious event to be held in the Menlo Park City Council Chambers, the verdict is in from the city attorney: If you can pay the fee, and you don't plan on doing anything illegal, you can use the council chambers for an event — religious or not.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Wednesday, January 30, 2008, 12:00 AM

Comments (32)

Posted by Liz, a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Jan 29, 2008 at 3:01 pm

Thank you for publishing this story. Obviously this is an important issue for both Menlo Park residents as well as non residents, since it deals with our fundamental rights. The large number of responses on town square speaks for itself.
Many of us who saw the letter by Martin Engel and his wife on the Almanac's online site were frankly appalled by it. The arguments made by Mr. Engel and his wife attempted to twist the interpretation of constitutional law in order to violate the free speech rights of this church group.
I am thankful to those who defended this group and the rights of any other oganizations that may want to lawfully use city facilities.


Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 30, 2008 at 11:58 am

This is common sense. Thank you for finishing it.

All this time and energy over Mr. Engle's mountain-mole hill article. I counted over 70 posts!


Posted by Gern Blanston, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 30, 2008 at 12:02 pm

Liz wrote:

"Many of us who saw the letter by Martin Engel and his wife on the Almanac's online site were frankly appalled by it."

If you were truly "appalled" by the Engels' open and civil query about the religious use of public facilities then you are far too sensitive, certainly of too delicate a constitution to be participating in forums such as these. The irony in this thread is that Mr. Engel has been far more civil than many or most of those who support the position favoring religious groups, and who are, ostensibly, religious (but religious fervor has never, historically, been associated with civility).

One may reasonably conclude that the Engels' question needed asking, given all the discussion it fostered, and Menlo Park will be the better for having a new policy in place. I, for one, applaud the Engels for the seeming temerity to ask the question in so religious a town as Menlo Park, and see absolutely no harm in their having done so.

Gern


Posted by Gern Blanston, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 30, 2008 at 12:13 pm

Joanna wrote:

"All this time and energy over Mr. Engle's mountain-mole hill article."

No small statement, this, coming from the Queen of mountains out of molehills herself, Ms. recallfergie.com. I stand in awe of your mastery of unintended irony.

Gern


Posted by Ken, a resident of another community
on Jan 30, 2008 at 2:26 pm

After I saw the Engel's letter that sparked this controversy, I asked Mr. Engel to explain his position clearly online. In reply, he produced a list of irrelevant case law. I then posted a comment in which I explained why each case he cited did not apply in this instance.
I concluded by asking him to state, without a legal smoke screen, just what harm is caused by a church group's use of these facilities. Why the great fear?
So far there has been no response from Mr. Engel or anyone else.


Posted by Gern Blanston, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 30, 2008 at 7:00 pm

I may be able to speak to the "great fear" some experienced upon learning of the location of this prayer meeting, as I felt much the same way the Engels did when I first read the flyer. Without context or any notion of the city's policy (or lack thereof) concerning use of the Council Chambers -- our most civic or meeting places -- I, too, was left wondering why Menlo Park was sponsoring or otherwise aiding the establishment of a religion (which religion made no difference to me).

It was only after learning that the city adhered to its unwritten policy in dealing with the religious group, offering no apparent sponsorship or aid, and charging the same rate as that for all groups which use the facility, that I became less alarmed, less "fearful." Like it or not, Ken, strict separation of church and state is one of the most important provisions of the Constitution for many of us, no matter how the courts and pundits may vacillate on the matter.

Gern


Posted by Ken, a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2008 at 1:36 am

Yes, Mr. Blanston, the First Amendment "establishment" clause is very important. (Note that the phrase "separation of church and state" is not in the U.S. Constitution. - It is found in the writings of Thomas Jefferson.)
The founders wrote the First Amendment to ensure their freedom to practice their various religions without government oppression. It was a one way wall of separation, meant to keep the government out of religion, - not religion out of the government. Unfortunately, it is frequently misinterpreted to mean the latter. Bad case law has added to the confusion. Some people have taken advantage of this confusion to prejudice public opinion against religion and religious believers, in an effort to curtail them. This is unjust and it must stop.
The practices of the city of Menlo Park regarding the use of its facilities have always been legal and appropriate. I am glad that they shall continue to be so.


Posted by Gern said it better, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 31, 2008 at 8:14 am

Separation of church and state as a principle has been established and vaidated through case law going up to the Supreme Court. Many elements of the body of law that governs our country were not in the Constitution but evolved through the judicial process. Hooray for the founders of our country who had the foresight to set up a dynamic rather than a stagnant system of government!

Separation of church and state is not as clear-cut as speeding or burglary. For many issues, the line between legal and illegal is not fully articulated; if it were, we would have no need for the Supreme Court!

This particular issue obviously deserved an airing as reflected in the number of posts and letters to the Almanac it has engendered. Thanks to Martin and Judith, the city is now giving that matter some attention. Some of the rest of you need to remember that, in a democracy, there are processes and laws that you may not like, just as there are people with whose opinions you may disagree, but it is prudent to be respectful of all.


Posted by Gern Blanston, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 31, 2008 at 10:26 am

Ken wrote:

"The founders wrote the First Amendment to ensure their freedom to practice their various religions without government oppression. It was a one way wall of separation, meant to keep the government out of religion, - not religion out of the government. Unfortunately, it is frequently misinterpreted to mean the latter. Bad case law has added to the confusion."

If I understand correctly, Ken, you reject the entire body of case law having to do with the first ten words of the First Amendment, favoring instead a literal interpretation of that amendment (and, by extenstion, the entire Constitution)? Where, then, in the First Amendment or elsewhere in the Constitution is there specific mention of this "one way wall of separation"? I don't see it. I do not see it because it cannot be found anywhere in the Constitution. I suspect, as well, that there is no case law, flawed or otherwise, that supports your one-way wall of separation. And if you harken to claims made by certain Christian mythologists that Thomas Jefferson uttered or wrote that phrase, or harbored any such notion in relation to the First Amendment, you will be hard-pressed to prove that (the actual letter Jefferson wrote to Nehemiah Dodge and the Danbury Baptist Association is unambiguous).

Further, if we continue to ignore case law, it comes down to how we interpret, in the strictest literal sense, these words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Is it more reasonable and rational to assume a two-way wall of separation based on those ten words, or to assume, as you imply in your post, "religion shall have free reign in governance and the establishment of law?" I seek the strictest literal interpretation here. If you favor the latter, but perhaps object to "free reign," where, then, do you draw the line? While you ponder that, please point me to that theocracy which protects individual liberty better than does our U.S. government, "bad" judicial branch and all.

Gern


Posted by InDefenseOf CivilRights, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 31, 2008 at 10:38 am

This issue did indeed deserve an airing, to reveal the sneeky way that some operate in order to squelch the rights of those whose beliefs and speech they do not like. For too long bullies, like the Engels and their friends, have been pushing their their religious hatred under the guise of "separation of church and state".
Dishonest lawyers and judges have been mutilating our laws for years, but the problem can be reversed. I think it's a very good sign that people who really care about the health of our democracy are waking up. I applaud the people who dared to speak out against this injustice. The Almanac itself deserves special praise for the great editorial in this week's paper.


Posted by InDefenseOfCivilRights, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 31, 2008 at 10:45 am

Correction: sneaky


Posted by Joanna, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 31, 2008 at 12:00 pm

Germ,

Get off the armchair. You and Engle will construe anything, won't you.


Posted by truth, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jan 31, 2008 at 12:50 pm

This was more of an issue than it had to be. Joanna, no surprise you have to drop to name calling, although a step up from the disinformation, it is still just another example of why people should ignore you.


Posted by Ken, a resident of another community
on Jan 31, 2008 at 1:13 pm

Mr. Blanston, just as the phrase, "separation of church and state", dose not appear anywhere in the Constitution, but rather in Jefferson's writings, - so, further dicussions of the meaning of the "establishment" clause, can be found in the writings of other founders.
It is clear from numerous, historical documents, that the designers of our Constitution wanted to avoid the kind of situation that existed in England. England had etablished a state religion that resulted in the brutal opression of all other religious groups. Many of those who risked their lives to come to the "New World", were excaping that religious persecution.
The authors of our Constitution thought that the wording of the First Amendment was straightforward. It meant exactly what it said. They wanted no etablished theocracy, AND they wanted no prohibition of their religious freedoms. Everyone at the time, understood that it was written to keep government out of religion, not religion out of government. In illustration of this fact, was the simple and common practice of begining meetings of government bodies with prayer. This is a practice that continues today.
It would have been unthinkable to the founders to expunge religion from the public venue. After all these were the people who wrote in The Declaration Of Independence, "WE hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness...".
In other words the Creator, or God grants these rights, not governments. Governments are instituted to secure these rights. However, when government violates these God-given rights, the people may alter or abolish it.
The answers to your questions can be found in the historical documents surrounding the founding of our country. If we had not lost sight of this history, a great deal of flawed and confusing interpretations of the law could have been avoided.


Posted by settle down, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Jan 31, 2008 at 2:37 pm

How about looking at the real concern expressed originally, which was whether what it's appropriate to hold what appears to be a religious meeting in a publicly-financed forum?

Please put aside all the legal mumbo jumbo, and nasty name-calling and conjecture of motives. Freedom of speech is critical to our democracy, as is separation of church and state. I am glad this issue has been raised and that it may prompt the city to formulate a policy. I hope it includes a requirement that there be a disclaimer that the city, by renting its facility to a religious organization (if the policy allows this), is not endorsing the views espoused.


Posted by i'm settled, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 31, 2008 at 3:02 pm

Settle down, you are right. I hope you're prepared to be vilified as a "religion hater."


Posted by Liz, a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Jan 31, 2008 at 3:46 pm

The city of Menlo Park HAS made its decision. It followed the LAW and allowed the church to give a lecture in the City Council Chambers. That means that it is both legal and appropriate.
Why don't those of you who still seem not to understand this, read the Almanac's own editorial on the subject. There is also a great opinion piece by an attorney, Mr. Conlon, explaining some of the legal precedents on the subject. Both can be found in the current edition of the Almanac.


Posted by Gern Blanston, a resident of Menlo Park: Linfield Oaks
on Jan 31, 2008 at 4:36 pm

Ken wrote:

"The answers to your questions can be found in the historical documents surrounding the founding of our country."

Yes, Ken and I have wandered slightly off topic with our recent posts and, clearly, into a subject with which neither has expertise, so I'll close with an assertion that will at first appear harsh, but which is intended more as a challenge, and that is, Ken, that your "argument" is as vacuous as it is evasive. Or will you provide sources in your next post? Vague statements about "bad" case law, unnamed historical documents, and the true religious intentions of our founding fathers (many of whom were Deists, mind you) is proof of nothing.

I ask you to provide sources because it is you who demand change. I am more or less content with the current legal interpretation of the First Amendment, which to this layman appears to require a separation of church and state. I agree with you, Ken, that in practice we do not have a true separation of church and state -- nor have we at any point in the country's history -- but so long as we slip no closer to a theocracy this atheist will do his best to honor the religious practices, intentions, and needs of others.

Incidentally, Ken, what is your vision of the perfect melding of government and religion? If not a full-blown theocracy then where's the middle ground? And which religion? Regards,

Gern


Posted by David, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Jan 31, 2008 at 7:29 pm

This dicing up of the First Amendment, seems to be a large part of the problem here. It is not valid to cherry pick certain clauses or phrases from this Amendment, as a substitution for the meanig of the whole.
As Ken said, the First Amendment BOTH prevents the government from establishing ANY theocracy, and at the SAME TIME prevents it from prohibiting the free practice of religion in general. In this way, people can practice any religion of their choosing, without prejudice, since the state has not made any one of those religions the "official" religion.
One cannot simply say that they believe in one part of an Amendment, like the "establishment" clause, (or as some want to call it "the separation of church and state"), and just toss out the rest.


Posted by think about it, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Jan 31, 2008 at 9:22 pm

I've never been very good at black-and-white thinking, so forgive me for not being quite as clearheaded as some of you who can so easily determine what is okay and what is not. From my perspective, free speech (which, as we should be able to agree, is not always free but has some caveats associated) is not the same as freedom to practice the religion of one's choice. Freedom to practice the religion of one's choice is related to (but not the same as) separation of church and state.

Different people can have different interpretations of the separation doctrine. That doesn't mean anyone is trying to discard anything or ignore anything. Unless or until a court makes a specific determination, unlikely to happen in this case, we don't know for sure which interpretation would prevail in any given situation. And even if a court interprets a situation in one way, the next court might reverse that decision.

Note that in recent years there have been a number of lawsuits filed by people who claim that teaching evolution in schools is a violation of the separation doctrine. I doubt many people in Menlo Park share that belief, but in some jurisdictions the courts have ruled that the separation doctrine proscribes such teaching.

Even though you know the truth and you absolutely know what's right, you might be wrong. Scary, huh?


Posted by David, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 1, 2008 at 12:25 am

Think about it, maybe an analogy will help you. If you excerpt one sentence, or even one paragraph of a story, you will very likely misinterpret the overall meaning of the story. This is the mistake made in focusing on the "establishment" clause, without considering the rest of the freedoms ensured by the First Amendment. Some of those other freedoms include; the free exercise of religion and the freedom of speech.
The attorney for the city of Menlo Park, Bill McClure, stated that the city could not dicriminate against the church group because of their message or beliefs. It would be a violation of their free speech rights. The Almanac also published an editorial this week, stating that the city of Menlo Park was certainly not establishing a religion by allowing the church to use city facilities for their lecture. Their reasoning was clear, concise and sensible. Everyone interested in this issue should read it.
If you are still confused at this point, I am sorry. The issue has been effectively resolved. I think the real problem is that you just don't like the outcome.


Posted by law 101, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 1, 2008 at 6:44 pm

This particular case is moot, but the issue has not been resolved. The attorney acknowledged that the city needs guidelines, and so the city will be coming up with rules for who can use its facilities. Or do you want to see a horse show in the council chambers?

It's perfectly legal for the city to say that religious events cannot be held in the council chambers. The city cannot discriminate against particular religious groups, but it can explicitly state what is and is not permitted. And even the most devout church goer should be able to understand that this kind of clarification truly helps you because it means that no one group will be favored over another.

Thanks to Judith and Martin, we are getting a very positive outcome.


Posted by Think Again, a resident of another community
on Feb 1, 2008 at 8:11 pm

In his guest opinion, "Free speech protected in council chambers", published in the Almanac, attorney Greg Conlon explained how the law works in situations like these. I suggest you read it (for a little law 101).
The bottom line is this; if the city denies the use of its facilities to any or all religous groups, it must also deny their use to ALL other groups (both civic and community).
The city, he said, "cannot exclude religious organizations from the same buildings, because it would be discriminating against a religious viewpoint." This would violate the free speech clause of the First Amendment.
I don't think you and the Engels are going to get the city council to go there with you.


Posted by think needs to learn how to think, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Feb 2, 2008 at 8:53 am

One lawyer will tell you one thing, one will tell you another. The decision is up to the courts. An individual lawyer who has a personal stake in any issue is going to interpret the law to favor his own stance.

The city is perfectly within its rights to say, for example, that the council chambers are for use by residents only. That does not preclude anyone from coming to a council meeting and spending three minutes talking about his religion. That's where free speech comes in. Got it?

(While you're at it, why not challenge the council time limit. Isn't it a violation of free speech to require people to keep their presentations to 3 minutes or less?)


Posted by Good For A Laugh, a resident of another community
on Feb 2, 2008 at 9:39 am

Honest lawyers will simply state what the law states. Dishonest ones, ruin our law because of their personal preferences and prejudices, - like those who push the idea that the establishment clause means freedom from religion. Go ahead and try a lawsuit, if you are so afraid of religious speech. Let's see how far you get.


Posted by Capitalist, a resident of another community
on Feb 2, 2008 at 10:35 am

Is the belief in the "invisible hand" of capitalism a form of religion? Look what's happening at the Menlo Park Council Chambers on Wednesday:
Economist John R. Lott takes a look at the effects of the free market economy in his book "Freedomnomics," a counterargument to the 2005 book "Freakonomics." He explains why he believes the U.S. economy embodies the most honest and creative aspect of our society. Wed., Feb. 6, 7-8 p.m. $7 for Commonwealth Club members; $12 for nonmembers. Menlo Park City Council Chambers, 701 Laurel St., Menlo Park. Call 408-280-5842. For more information, click here: Web Link


Posted by David, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 2, 2008 at 10:45 am

Read "The Wealth of Nations" to understand freedom and capitalism and how they are necessarily related.


Posted by IS THAT SO, a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Feb 2, 2008 at 10:54 am

Liz in a post above says, "The city of Menlo Park HAS made its decision. It followed the LAW and allowed the church to give a lecture in the City Council Chambers. That means that it is both legal and appropriate."

Her conclusion is certainly not correct. The City attorney, William McClure indeed made a decision, that's is what he is paid for; that is what the current City policy will be, unless changed in the future.

I believe he made that decision believing in his opinion that is within the Law, but that is one mans, the City's attorney, opinion. It may well be wrong; unless appealed to a court it will stand. The City Council, if it so wishes, could change that policy (I sure think they have better issues to deal with), but it is within their power.

As for Mr. Conlan's statement of what is the Law, remember he is a member of the Church which held the event. Perhaps a biased view??

I also applaud Martin and Judith for exposing the issue; that's what free speech and democracy are all about.

is that so


Posted by Liz, a resident of Menlo Park: Stanford Hills
on Feb 2, 2008 at 11:34 am

I love people like you, Mr./Ms. "IS THAT SO", who trample free speech in the name of free speech. You, yourself are clearly biased.
I agree with David, see how far you get with your lawsuit.
It is also clear that the Engels didn't just want to bring the issue up. They wanted a permit withdrawn. They tried to exert undue influence with the city to that end. It didn't work.
Our city facilities should be open to everyone. I know that all fair minded people think the same.


Posted by 20-20, a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Feb 2, 2008 at 11:37 am

>>Honest lawyers will simply state what the law states.<<

Honest lawyers may differ on their interpretation of the law. That's why we have the judicial system. That's why higher courts overturn the rulings of lower courts.

Lawyers don't make the laws. Lawyers don't adjudicate the laws. Lawyers represent clients--hence the word "attorney." Bill McClure was acting in the capacity of city attorney when he made the statement about the use of the chambers.

As was noted above, the law is not black and white but multi-hued, and the glasses you're wearing may affect the way it looks to you.


Posted by not dizzy lizzy, a resident of Menlo Park: Downtown
on Feb 2, 2008 at 11:39 am

Who wants a lawsuit? We want policy!

The Menlo Park taxpayers who own the facility have a right to help set that policy. Personally, I want to exclude dog and pony shows.


Posted by Good For A Laugh, a resident of another community
on Feb 2, 2008 at 12:18 pm

Some people not only don't understand free speech issues, they can't follow a conversation. The only options available and relevant here, are; 1) allow all groups to use the facilities, regardless of their beliefs, or, 2) restrict all groups. The city will write up a clarification of their policy for those who can't grasp the establishment clause issue and so forth. If you still don't like the outcome, try your lawsuit.


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