Florida city council keeps God in charter

Wednesday, April 22, 1998

City council members in Hialeah, Fla., have decided to keep a provision in the town’s charter that mandates all laws be made “in accordance with the will of Almighty God.”

The decision to keep the phrase was prompted by citizens’ angry reactions to the council’s original decision to yank the wording. Council members voted in early April to remove the religious language from the 1955 charter after attorneys suggested it ran contrary to the First Amendment’s principle of separation of church and state.

However, Hialeah citizens pressured the council to keep the wording, and the council unanimously voted last week to reverse its earlier decision and keep God in the charter.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida on Friday sent a letter to city council members and Hialeah’s mayor urging the language be dropped.

“This passage is inconsistent with the requirements of the U.S. Constitution, specifically the provision of the First Amendment which mandates separation of church and state,” the civil liberties group said.

“We understand the outcry of some citizens of Hialeah who urged that the Council overturn its previous vote that removed the provision. But what should be understood is that religious freedom is best protected by having the City Charter reflect the principles of the state and U.S. Constitutions requiring separation of church and state. Only when one is allowed to celebrate any god (or, indeed, even no god) free of government involvement is religious freedom protected.”

The Liberty Counsel, an Orlando-based legal firm dedicated to conservative Christian values, was contacted by Hialeah citizens regarding possible legal threats to the city charter. A lawyer for the organization told freedomforum.org that it would provide legal representation to the city if it is sued.

“This provision, in no way, violates the Establishment clause,” said Rick Nelson, executive counsel for the group. “The provision is merely a reflection contained within a historical document drafted in 1955. It is much like the preamble to Florida’s constitution which also makes a reference to ‘Almighty God’ and also the Declaration of Independence making several references to the ‘Creator’ and ‘God.’”

Mayor Raul Martinez said any changes to the charter must be included in an ordinance that eventually will be decided by voters. Martinez added, however, that the charter should contain some reference to God.

The U.S. Supreme Court has found that certain government expressions of religion do not necessarily violate the separation of church and state. Government sponsored religious expressions–to be found constitutional–must have a secular purpose, must not benefit religion in general, and must not unduly entangle religion with government, according to the court.

In 1984, the Supreme Court ruled in Lynch v. Donnelly that a city ordinance mandating a public park be decorated with displays celebrating Christmas — including a nativity scene — was not a government action that violated the Establishment clause. The majority of the court found that the history of Christmas celebrations in the country was such that it was unlikely that citizens would mistake the nativity scene as a government endorsement of religion.

Larry H. Spalding, legislative staff counsel for the ACLU of Florida, told freedomforum.org that the Liberty Counsel would not offer help to Hialeah unless religion was involved.

“If the charter were a historical document with no religious value, then it would not be something they would be defending,” Spalding said. “It is interesting that groups like the Liberty Counsel — which deal with religious issues primarily — defend these government actions by saying they are historical or secular and have nothing do with religion.”

Spalding said that if the city council does not change the wording the issue will be presented to the ACLU’s state legal panel to determine whether a lawsuit should be filed.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Hialeah law that banned animal sacrifice. The city law was challenged by the Santeria Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, which successfully argued that the city had adopted the law to target the church’s religious practices.