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Church State Issues

Debate over prayers at public meetings continues

Sep 23, 2012

Arizona Republic

Sadly the courts refuse to enforce parts of both the Arizona and Federal Constitutions that forbid mixing government and religion.

Complaints highlight divisions on religion and government

by Hayley Ringle - Sept. 22, 2012 09:32 PM

The Republic |

Phoenix attorney Dianne Post was "utterly shocked" when a Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meeting opened with a Christian prayer.

After researching a year of meetings and discovering that prayer was routinely offered, Post filed a complaint in July with the help of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, saying the prayer is unconstitutional. Post and the Wisconsin-based foundation then filed a similar complaint in August against the Phoenix City Council. She is working on a similar complaint against the Scottsdale City Council.

"I don't understand these people," said Post, who lives in Phoenix and calls herself a humanist. "That lawyer knows that there is a separation of church and state and this is prohibited, so why aren't they advising these county authorities that they can't do this? This is just basic constitutional law."

Despite the complaint, prayers are commonly given at the beginning of council meetings throughout the Valley, including Tempe, Gilbert, Litchfield Park and Tolleson. Congress also has started with a prayer for almost 200 years.

Prayers at school-board meetings aren't as common. Mesa Public Schools is among the few that still offer a non-denominational prayer. Chandler Unified School District ended the practice last year and opted for a moment of reflection after an Arizona School Boards Association law conference suggested that boards avoid prayers to prevent lawsuits.

The issue is divisive and heated. Depending on the expert, answers are varied on whether prayer is allowed. Some cities, such as Peoria, Surprise and Avondale, and many school boards have replaced the invocation with a moment of silence or choose to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Many say prayers are still given because it's a tradition. The councils and school boards that still offer a prayer typically rotate the prayer among staff, religious leaders or community members.

The Alliance Defending Freedom, a Scottsdale non-profit group, is representing councils in other states in challenges to legislative prayer. Their focus is to "defend the exercise of religious liberty and the right of government to recognize religious heritage and continue with traditional American practices," said senior counsel Brett Harvey.

"We think it's a constitutional right to do this," said Harvey, citing the Marsh vs. Chambers case. "We do feel there's a benefit to seeking divine guidance and asking for wisdom and blessings for the decisions that are made. The Supreme Court has made it clear that it's constitutional. We see no reason why our local officials should not be able to exercise those same rights exercised by our founders."

In the 1983 Marsh case in Nebraska, a challenge was made to the Nebraska Legislature for opening the meeting with a prayer. The U.S. Supreme Court permitted the practice of prayer, saying it predated the founding of the nation.

However, not everyone agrees. Paul Bender, who teaches constitutional law at Arizona State University, and who spoke on the topic Wednesday, said a prayer is unconstitutional, even if it's non-denominational. A non-denominational prayer gives no reference to any particular faith.

"Religion is not supposed to play a part in government," Bender said. "When you start an official government meeting with a prayer, you are saying, I think, that religion is going to play a part, even if it's non-denominational. Government should be religiously neutral."

Traditionally, a prayer is offered at the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors meetings. Prayers have been offered for decades by a county employee or a religious leader, and the type of prayer depends on who is giving it. They are generally Christian or non-denominational, said county spokeswoman Cari Gerchick. The complaint against the board is being reviewed by the county attorney's office, she said.

The Phoenix City Council has offered a prayer or invocation at its public meetings since 1928, when the council passed an ordinance. Toni Maccarone, a Phoenix spokeswoman, said "the law does allow the city to have a non-denominational prayer." The city's law department is researching the complaint and working on a response.

Although she said the prayers are non-denominational, the complaint said the prayers are "pervasively Christian" with passages commonly recited from the "Judeo-Christian Bible."

School boards

The Gilbert Public Schools governing board, which replaced the prayer with a moment of silence in August 2001, recently came under scrutiny after a board member and a board candidate requested members consider bringing back a non-denominational prayer at the meeting. The four other board members declined to discuss the issue.

Board candidate Daryl Colvin said he finds the moment of silence "insulting, ridiculously short and unnecessary," calling it a "need to bow to political correctness to a ridiculous degree."

"The school district needs to make a decision whether they are there to help perpetuate successful American traditions, or to place a left-wing activism where they want to undermine those traditions," said Colvin, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

An Arizona Republic poll as of Friday generated more than 1,800 responses, with the "no" votes barely edging out the "yes" votes on whether the board should bring back a prayer.

Gilbert board President E.J. Anderson said that although she is a "believer in and supporter of prayer," prayer in school-board meetings is not a simple, straightforward issue.

"It is fraught with many legal issues and ramifications," said Anderson, a member of the Mormon church. "Current law and high-court rulings limit the way we can pray. I believe the current moment of silence allows everyone to pray the way they want. I believe that is important. It makes me very sad that prayer has become a very divisive issue in our community."

Chris Thomas, general counsel for the school-board association, said the safest thing a school board can do is offer a moment of silence or reflection.

"If you do a prayer that references Jesus Christ or any of the tenets of Christianity, that will clearly be unconstitutional," said Thomas, citing two court cases. "Although some communities expect (a prayer), it's only going to take one parent to make a complaint. That's why we have to be careful."

For Mesa Public Schools, a non-denominational prayer has been a "longstanding tradition," said spokeswoman Helen Hollands. "The governing board has continued this tradition over time without discussion," she said.

Go to at noon Monday to participate in a live chat about prayer at public meetings. Scheduled to participate are Bradley Abramson, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, and Anne Mardick, founder and president of the Greater Phoenix chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, and of Valley of the Sun chapter of Freedom From Religion Foundation. Send questions to