Rancho Cordova mixing church and state, critics charge

Published: Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3B
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 25, 2013 - 11:55 am

Two groups claim the city of Rancho Cordova is violating the constitutional principle of separation between church and state by scheduling a "Celebration of Faith" this Sunday as part of its 10th anniversary celebration.

"The most egregious thing here is that the city has its own day of prayer that it's sponsoring," said Ian Smith, staff attorney for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Judy Saint, president of the Greater Sacramento chapter of Freedom from Religion Foundation, had an issue with the fact that only Christian churches are involved with the event.

"They need to completely separate themselves from appearing to endorse any particular religion," she said.

Last week, the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sent letters to Rancho Cordova's mayor, Linda Budge, demanding the city cancel the 7 p.m. event at Village Green Park Ampitheater.

The event, which will feature instrumental and vocal music as well as community prayers, is the culmination of a "Day of Prayer" that will be observed by 10 local Christian churches with special worship services.

The city's celebration of its July 1, 2003, incorporation also will include four days of activities, including concerts, a free gourmet hot dog barbecue, an art exhibit, a parade and fireworks displays.

The two groups want the city to disassociate itself from the worship services and the prayer event. They say that means no endorsement or promotion of the event on the city's website.

Troy Holt, spokesman for the city of Rancho Cordova, said the intent of the city was to be as inclusive as possible.

"This was very much a grass-roots desire on the part of the community," he said. "We are encouraging all residents to celebrate the anniversary in the way that they chose. The intent was to be open to all organizations. It is not exclusionary at all."

Besides, he said that it's not the city that organized the events for the 10th anniversary celebration. The city has a $180,000 contract with the Cordova Community Council, a nonprofit group, to do that.

He said Rancho Cordova's only involvement in the planning of the activities was to hold community meetings to solicit ideas on how to celebrate the anniversary.

"It's not our event, it's a community event," he said.

But that argument doesn't fly with Freedom From Religion Foundation.

"That this event may be partially organized by others is no defense," wrote Andrew L. Seidel, staff attorney for the group, in a letter to Budge and the City Council. He noted that the Cordova Community Council worked with the city on a presentation on the 10th anniversary event.

Holt said the city isn't directly promoting the event but its website provides a link to the festivities, www.RanchoCordova Anniversary.com, that is maintained by the community council.

But Smith noted that the website has a seal that reads "City of Rancho Cordova" and "10 Year Anniversary" – which seems to imply that the city does endorse all the events.

Holt, however, said the seal, created last December with the approval of the city, was not the formal city emblem.

Shelly Blanchard, executive director of Cordova Community Council, said her group would consider taking the logo down on the website if it is considered misleading.

"We probably need to change that seal on the website to reflect (the situation) more accurately," she said. "We're here to celebrate the city in a very positive way. We have no intention to peddle a certain religious point of view."

She also noted that it was the churches that approached the CCC with the idea for the event, and that it was not her group's place to cancel it.

"It would not be my decision to make," she said. "It will be on the part of the participating churches. They're doing all the work."

Blanchard also said that her group recognizes the concerns of Freedom from Religion and Americans United.

"We need to take it seriously and be open to their point of view," she said, adding: "The intention is not to offend but to have a good time. It's a birthday party."

Call The Bee's Tillie Fong, (916) 321-1006.

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