August 4, 2009
Maggie Creamer — Lodi News-Sentinel
In an all-black outfit, Gordon James Klingenschmitt stood with his Bible in hand and quoted from both religious texts and the U.S. Constitution to prove that Jesus should be allowed in prayer at the Lodi City Council meetings.
The founder of the Colorado Springs, Co.-based The Pray In Jesus Name Project was standing in front of Carnegie Forum at a news conference he set up Monday.
Publicity is one of his organization’s best tools to get the word out about their cause, and a prayer rally is planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday, Klingenschmitt said. The group also used an Internet campaign to collect 5,185 signatures on a petition advocating that the word Jesus remain in prayers. Of the signatures, 2,826 are from California.
“Jesus is not an illegal word. … Now, an atheist’s group is using the government’s sword to tell me I can’t pray in Jesus’ name,” Klingenschmitt said.
A former Navy chaplain, Klingenschmitt has been in the media in recent years for arguing with communities and the military about the use of Jesus in prayer.
As the only member of the public attending the news conference, Lodi resident David Diskin stood off to the side and listened.
A week ago, Diskin joined with a small group of residents called Lodi United to organize a “counter-rally” starting at 5:15 p.m. Wednesday. He stresses that the group will be made up of both atheists and people from a variety of faiths who share the belief that the council should not pray before meetings.
“We want to show the people of Lodi and the Lodi City Council that there are people who have strong opinions. … People might not come Wednesday because they are worried what their family, colleagues or business partners would say, and I can sympathize,” Diskin said.
Klingenschmitt and Diskin are on opposite ends of an argument over whether the council should enforce its “non-sectarian and non-denominational” prayer policy.
Both groups have decided to hold rallies Wednesday, even though the council will not be discussing the prayer policy.
For years, the council has allowed religious leaders to say Jesus’ name in their prayers. The Madison, Wis.-based Freedom From Religion Foundation challenged the practice in May and demanded the council enforce its own policy or face a lawsuit.
The challenge has set up a debate between those who believe the council should get rid of prayer completely and others who believe the council has gone too far by requesting that the name “Jesus Christ” be removed.
In Jesus’ name
Klingenschmitt has been embroiled in controversy over the past years by taking his organization to various communities and pushing them to continue or reinstate policies that allow prayers to Jesus.
His crusade started in the military, when he said he was told he could not pray in the name of Jesus, he said.
But his story surrounding his struggles in the Navy is different than the story of his superior, retired Navy Captain Norman Holcomb, whom the News-Sentinel interviewed by phone Monday.
During his service, Klingenschmitt preached about hell at a sailor’s funeral and protested the Navy’s failure to meet a Jewish sailor’s request for kosher meals, according to a January 2006 article in The Washington Post. The article also said he organized a group of Navy personnel who refused to attend a church service led by a gay minister during Fleet Week.
He led an 18-day hunger strike in December 2005 and January 2006 in front of the White House to require the Navy to allow him to pray in Jesus’ name. But the Navy said it had no regulation against praying to Jesus and “has always encouraged every chaplain to pray according to his own individual faith during worship services,” Navy spokesman Lt. William Marks said in the 2006 Post article.
As his commander for two years, Holcomb said Monday that Klingenschmitt’s discharge had nothing to do with praying to Jesus. Holcomb described Klingenschmitt as untruthful, lacking military commitment and unwilling to abide by established rules and regulations.
Holcomb said Klingenschmitt was court martialed because he wore his Navy chaplain uniform to a political rally, after being warned that he would be violating military procedure, he said.
In September 2006, The Washington Post also reported Klingenschmitt was court martialed because he attended a political rally in uniform during March of that year. He was found guilty of a misdemeanor count of disobeying a lawful order in September 2006.
Klingenschmitt maintained he was at the event to offer public prayer and had written permission to wear his uniform when he is conducting “a bona fide worship service or observance,” he said in the article. But military prosecutor Cmdr. Rex A. Guinn said the event was not a worship service or observance.
Klingenschmitt was then honorably discharged in 2007.
Holcomb said Klingenschmitt was always allowed to pray in Jesus’ name, but many troops did not like him as a chaplain because he would incite the soldiers during his prayers, Holcomb said.
“If you are a chaplain in the military, you can’t act like you are a preacher at a local church, because you have to take care of everybody, regardless of whether they believe what you do or not,” Holcomb said.
From the military, Klingenschmitt founded The Pray In Jesus Name Project and has been to several states in the country to assist local people in fighting against groups trying to limit prayer, he said.
“We want Lodi to stick to its guns and allow religious freedom,” he said.
SaveCalifornia.com, a statewide pro-family organization, is also throwing support behind Klingenschmitt’s cause. The group heavily campaigned for Proposition 8, a ban on same-sex marriage that passed in November.
At the Monday news conference, president Randy Thomasson said the government should not interfere with a group’s religious freedom.
“This is about Lodi, but it is also about America. … If atheists are able to squash religious freedom in Lodi, they will be hungry to squash religious freedom in other cities,” Thomasson said.
Another group, the Alliance Defense Fund, has also voiced support for keeping a policy that allows for uncensored prayers.
Local attorney Mark Bowman, who is a member of the fund, has sent a letter to the city offering to defend Lodi in court for free if the council adopts a prayer policy that does not restrict the content of the prayer.
“It is my hope that our city will not succumb to mere ‘threats’ to remove a practice that has enjoyed over two centuries of protection,” Bowman said in a letter dated July 28.
Word of mouth opposition
While sitting outside Carnegie Forum, Diskin admits if his group had more time maybe they would have thought to also hold a news conference.
Diskin, whose day job is providing training on Microsoft Office, has never actively protested religion in government but has always felt there should be a separation of church and state.
He said Lodi United is depending on word of mouth, and he hopes the Wednesday rally will be the start of a group that opposes religion in government.
“When something comes up that is important to you, you tend to get on it right away,” he said.
The rally will go from 5:15 to 7:15 p.m. and end with appetizers at Lodi Beer Company. Diskin said it is important to give the group time afterward to discuss, because many of them will be meeting for the first time.
His main objection to The Pray In Jesus Name Project is that they are going beyond supporting prayer.
“He doesn’t want to just allow prayer, but he wants to bring Jesus into these meetings. … Why would someone feel comfortable if they didn’t believe that,” Diskin said.
He imagines the group he is forming will exist even after the Lodi issue is solved, because it includes people from around the region, include Modesto, Sacramento and Turlock.
“There is no reason we can’t lend our help to them when the time comes in their cities,” Diskin said.