LANCASTER, Calif. — A Muslim group filed a federal civil rights complaint on Feb. 5 after a Southern California mayor remarked that his city was "growing a Christian community" in a state of the city address late last month.
In a letter to the U.S. Justice Department, the Council on American-Islamic Relations claimed Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris violated the civil rights of non-Christians and shouldn't have used his official capacity at a city event to advance a particular religion.
According to a Jan. 31 blog post on the Los Angeles Times Web site, Parris told the audience at the city address: "We're growing a Christian community, and don't let anybody shy away from that. … I need [Lancaster residents] standing up and saying we're a Christian community, and we're proud of that."
The civil rights group also said Parris referred to an April ballot measure that would endorse prayer at city meetings without restricting its content, including references to Jesus Christ, as a way to "validate a Christian stance."
Such a mixing of church and state is "unhealthy, unconstitutional and very divisive," said Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR in greater Los Angeles.
"The role of any faith, of religion in general, is needed as much as the role of government... . Our concern is when the wall of separation is blurred," said Ayloush, whose letter requested a Justice Department investigation.
Parris, who was elected mayor in 2008, said he made the comment in a speech to Christian ministers at an event he paid for and thought it was appropriate. He said he was sorry if anyone was hurt by the remark, which was not his intent.
"I think it is totally ludicrous," Parris said on Feb. 5. "Something very dangerous is happening in America when a profession of your faith can end up in actual government hearings.
"All of us get to express our opinion wherever, whenever we want to, including opinions of faith, and that is what I did and that is what I will continue to do."
The controversy follows an uproar in the desert town about 40 miles north of Los Angeles about anti-Muslim remarks posted by a city councilwoman on her Facebook social-networking page.
Muslim community leaders criticized Lancaster Councilwoman Sherry Marquez for a posting about the 2008 beheading of Aasiya Hassan in New York that reportedly read "this is what the Muslim religion is all about." Marquez apologized for the effect her comments had on the city at a recent City Council meeting.