Eureka in talks over prayer lawsuit: Mayor says city council decided earlier this month to settle out of court

Attorneys at the Humboldt County Courthouse on Tuesday said a lawsuit concerning prayer invocations before Eureka City Council meetings could be settled within 60 days.

During the brief case management conference, Eureka City Attorney Cyndy Day-Wilson told Judge Bruce Watson that she and attorney Peter Martin are "currently negotiating a settlement."

Martin filed the lawsuit on behalf of Eureka resident Carole Beaton against the city in January 2013, requesting that it cease holding both sectarian or non-sectarian invocations before City Council meetings, and for Mayor Frank Jager to stop promoting the annual Mayor's Prayer Breakfast.

On Dec. 24, Humboldt County Superior Court Judge Bruce Watson made a ruling stating that non-sectarian invocations at council meetings are lawful, but that Beaton can still pursue her claim against Jager's prayer breakfast. Watson said his ruling was based on the 1983 Marsh v. Chambers Supreme Court Case decision, which held that the Nebraska Legislature did not violate the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution by opening its sessions with prayers given by a chaplain due to its historic practice.

After Tuesday's conference, Day-Wilson said she could not discuss the details of the settlement negotiations. Martin also said he could not go into the details, but said he was "optimistic" about their discussions.

"I'm sure we can find some middle ground," Martin said.

Though Watson partially ruled in favor of the city in December, Martin said their lawsuit has had an effect.

"Before we filed the suit, a person could do an invocation without any restrictions from the City Council," Martin said. "Now, they're only restricted to non-sectarian invocations."

Beaton said she would not mind if Jager had the breakfast at his church or anywhere else, but not as an elected city official.

"I want to say that the lawsuit was not against prayer and was not against religion," she said. "It was against the mixing of church and state. A city or any other government entity should not be sponsoring a religious event."

Part of Beaton's argument was that Jager had the city clerk type up a letter about the prayer breakfast, which Jager said is "pretty silly to get upset about."

"I agree with Carole that government and religion should not be mixed together, but that's not the purpose of the prayer breakfast at all," Jager said. "It was never sponsored by the city. The event has to go before the City Council and be voted on, and that never happened in this case."

Jager said that the council decided at its Feb. 4 meeting to negotiate a settlement rather than "spend a lot of money going to trial."

"We'll see where it settles out," Jager said.

The attorneys will return to the courthouse on April 30 at 1:30 p.m. to determine whether a trial is necessary.

Will Houston can be reached at 707-441-0504 or Follow him on