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Column: Scapegoating a kumbaya interfaith group? Stay classy, Huntington Beach


Bagels and pastries went largely untouched at the monthly meeting of the Greater Huntington Beach Interfaith Council, which aims to bring peace, love, and understanding to a city that constantly needs each.

About 20 members gathered at tables or zoomed in last Tuesday, intently focused on the latest intolerant troublemakers plaguing Surf City.


A week earlier, the city council had decided to re-evaluate the incantations offered before each meeting.

For at least 17 years, a handshake agreement has left the job to the Interreligious Council. The only guidelines: no conversion, no politics and keep it within a minute.

The resolution passed by the city council claimed that the interfaith group had turned incantations into “political soapboxing opportunities”.

Republican Mayor Tony Strickland — a former MP and senator who drafted the resolution with fellow Republican Gracey Van Der Mark — said he had received “hundreds” of complaints about the issue.

“It’s been a problem and it’s a problem that needs to be solved,” he said at the council meeting.

Van Der Mark, who was part of a new conservative majority on the council, suggested that the city draw up a list of “certified” religious leaders to handle the incantation. Strickland said this would ensure that no one from a “hate group” could ever participate.

Members of the Interreligious Council only learned of the proposal after someone from the city manager’s office called to let them know.

On Tuesday, their meeting began with – what else? – an incantation.

Elaine Keeley read “First They Came…” – the iconic poem by a German Lutheran minister who lamented his own silence when the Nazis came for socialists, unionists, Jews, and then for him.

Keely’s father, former Huntington Beach mayor Ralph Bauer, helped found the Interfaith Council in 1996.

“I think he would have wanted to read this today,” she said.

President Maneck Bhujwala told his colleagues that he had watched their invocations for a year and found nothing objectionable.

“We did a very good job,” claimed the volunteer Zoroastrian priest.

Rabbi Stephen Einstein, former president and co-founder of the Interfaith Council, saw Strickland’s move as part of an “agenda that is at odds with the warm and welcome attitude we have.”

That led to a reprimand from Dave Garofalo, a former mayor of Huntington Beach who was banned from office after pleading guilty to a felony and 15 counts of misdemeanor in 2002 for violating conflict of interest laws.

“We contributed to this,” said Garofalo, criticizing what he described as Einstein’s history of “not just passive but aggressive remarks” toward council members in previous meetings.

The rabbi countered that he never let his political views slip into his incantations. Garofalo maintained that the Interreligious Council had “politicized” what should remain apolitical.

“What happened, happened,” Bhujwala said politely but firmly. “We are moving forward. This only reminds us of the importance of our mission. We shouldn’t take it personally.”

After the meeting, the members still wanted to know which of them had said the things Strickland claimed to have done.

“I wanted details instead of ‘hundreds of complaints,'” Bhujwala said. “I want to know what it was so we can talk to that person ourselves. At the moment we don’t even have the details.”

“I haven’t seen a pattern of the things that have been claimed,” said Don Garrick, who sits on the board of Orange County Interfaith Council. “If it’s just one incident, is that really fair? You make laws based on something general, not something one-off.”

I told Garrick that I had watched every invocation since early 2022 – a parade of Catholic deacons, Episcopalian priests, rabbis, evangelical Christians, an Imam, a Methodist, and others. Only two bordered on the controversial.

A woman mentioned Jesus’ promise to separate the sheep from the goats at the Last Judgment.

The other incantation was uttered by Einstein on December 6, when Strickland, Van Der Mark, and two other Republicans were sworn in.

The rabbi denounced the “deterioration of kindness and decency both locally and nationally” and cited religious groups that had experienced hate crimes in Orange County that year.

“Christians!” some in the crowd shouted angrily, drawing a puzzled look from Einstein.

The rest of the incantations, I told Garrick, were well-meaning pablum.

“Hi!” joked Charlie Neiderman, president of the Interreligious Council. “I put a lot of deliberation into mine!”

“The city can never tell us how to pray,” Vice President Jynene Johnson said.

She’s right that Huntington Beach legally can’t, but the city can choose WHO pray for meetings. A 2014 Supreme Court ruling allowed governing bodies to choose who makes invocations, provided it’s not always just one stance of faith.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the UC Berkeley School of Law and a constitutional law scholar, said Huntington Beach “can certainly take away (occupations), and they can give it to someone else. That doesn’t violate 1st amendment. But if they only had it from one faith or one political ideology, that would be unconstitutional.”

Until recently, Huntington Beach was slowly changing Orange County’s too-tanned melting pot from conservative weirdness to something more… normal?

The Council – including MMA legend and arch-pandejo Tito Ortiz – Voted in 2021 to fly the Pride flag in front of City Hall. That same year, Rhonda Bolton became the city’s first black councillor, when the council flipped — gasp! – majority liberal.

That was then. After Einstein’s invocation, the new conservative majority voted to nominate mayor of Strickland over Democratic Councilman Dan Kalmick.

They also invited Calvary Chapel of the Harbor pastor Joe Pedick – who addressed an HB Stop the Steal rally late 2020 – to cast a second incantation. In his four-minute narration, Pedick looked at the council members and said, “Lord, we know everyone is under attack up here.”

Shortly thereafter, the majority of the council banned the Pride flag and other non-governmental banners from flying on city grounds. They also promised to argue again with Governor Gavin Newsom over what they believe was a conspiracy to urbanize Surf City.

But scapegoating an interfaith Kumbaya group? Stay stylish, Huntington Beach!

Huntington Beach Mayor Tony Strickland, left, and Councilman Gracey Van Der Mark at a “meet and greet” event. The two Republicans co-authored a resolution claiming the interfaith group had turned incantations into “political soapboxing opportunities.”

(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

“We have very important business to take care of in the city, and I don’t know why they (the majority of the council) are focusing on that,” said Natalie Moser, a member of the Democratic Council, who attended the Interfaith Council meeting and a tense exchange of views with Strickland about the invocations at the February 21 council meeting. “All it does is make us look like a city that’s exclusive and bigoted — and this is an ongoing thing.”

Strickland admitted that Huntington Beach “has bigger problems roasting.”

The invocations became a priority because “this is just something that came to me from the community,” he said. He described Einstein’s Dec. 6 remarks as a “very, very political incantation that I had never seen before.”

When I asked for more examples, the mayor replied: “It’s hard to describe, but just look and hear them. You will see that they have a political character.”

When I told them I had looked at a year’s worth and found only two vaguely problematic—one of which quoted Christ—Strickland paused and then said, “Anyone can look at different things and come up with a different perspective.”

He also thought it was inappropriate for Einstein to be “very open about attacking” Van Der Mark – Huntington Beach’s first Latina councilman.

In 2018, Einstein and others had demanded that Van Der Mark resign from the Huntington Beach school district and city council committees to create a YouTube playlist titled “Holocaust Hoax?” with antisemitic videos. She left a comment on another video about an anti-racism workshop in Santa Monica, saying that “people of color were there and did what the older Jewish people told them to do.” (Van Der Mark said at the time that her words had been taken out of context, that the playlist was for “research purposes”, and that she was not anti-Semitic.)

When I pointed out that Einstein had criticized Van Der Mark in public comments and not incantations, Strickland said, “That’s true, but again, this is a problem.”

The mayor said he would meet Bhujwala soon. “Maybe we just have a heart-to-heart and say, ‘Try to be a little more careful and make it really apolitical.'”

In an interview ahead of the Interreligious Council meeting, Bhujwala told me, “I feel like if the city takes over (incantation) it will be a lot of extra work for them to manage this kind of diversity and keep the peace going. put we helped in the city.”

He then chuckled.

“If they think they can do better, good luck.”

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