By Caitlin McGlade The Republic | azcentral.com
Wed Sep 11, 2013 9:27 PM
The Glendale City Council adopted a policy Tuesday, Sept. 10, that allows for prayer during meetings — a practice that has languished in a legal gray area nationwide for long enough that the United States Supreme Court is weighing in this session.
The council voted 4-3 to allow speakers to volunteer to make a two-minute prayer or invocation during meetings to “solemnize” council business, replacing the moment of silence that the council traditionally observed.
Mayor Jerry Weiers, along with councilmembers Norma Alvarez, Sam Chavira and Ian Hugh, voted in favor of the measure. Vice Mayor Yvonne Knaack, joined by councilmembers Gary Sherwood and Manny Martinez opposed it.
Weiers said public prayer from various faiths would illuminate Glendale’s diversity and perhaps give the city a spiritual boost.
“The fact is, the city needs help. I’m willing to take help from anyone I can get it from,” he said.
Knaack cited a few reasons for her opposition, including that she felt the proposal was a “personal agenda item and not one that the majority of our citizens support.”
Council received about 25 letters regarding prayer during meetings, with 22 against the move.
After the meeting, Sherwood said his “no” vote was because the city has far larger problems to handle.
More than 30 municipalities statewide convene council meetings with prayers or invocations, according to research compiled by Glendale staff.
But protocols could change pending the outcome of a case the Supreme Court will take up this session.
Governments that offer prayer have operated under “fuzzy” guidelines since a 1983 Supreme Court case set a precedent for allowing prayer before sessions as long as the practice didn’t lead to proselytizing or disparaging any beliefs, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum in Washington DC.
The court left much unclear, such as whether prayers should only be universal or whether a rotating group of religious leaders is permissible even if most speakers represent one religion, Haynes said.
The confusion has landed a slew of cities in the courtroom. Those cases have resulted in a patchwork of conflicting rulings from different courts. Haynes said the high court likely agreed to take up the latest case to set straight the differing rulings.
The case before the U.S. Supreme Court examines pre-meeting prayers at Greece, N.Y. There, rotating prayer leaders bless meetings. A lower court ruled that because most of the meetings carried a Christian message, the town was effectively promoting one religion over another.
The town argued that most of their messages were Christian simply because most of the speakers who volunteered were of that faith.
An Arizona Republic story in June found that 80 percent of the invocations since 2011 at Chandler City Council meetings represented Christian denominations.
“Any city or town that is thinking of passing a prayer policy at this point would probably be wise to wait to hear what the court says,” Haynes said.
Haynes said he doubts the court would strike down prayer before sessions but, it should answer a key question: If governments have a rotating prayer leader model, and prayers wind up representing mostly one faith, is that permissible if there is a good effort to include all beliefs?
Such models typically fall into that cadence. Haynes said, leaving minorities to feel left out. That includes a growing number of people with no religious identity, he said. A December 2012 Gallup poll found that 15.6 percent of Americans do not identify with a religion.
Weiers said he’s not concerned about the Supreme Court case, explaining that Glendale could change its procedure if it conflicts with its ruling.
Glendale’s 20-point set of guidelines broaches that issue by barring one speaker from leading consecutive meetings and from leading more than three times a year. In addition, it bars speakers from the same denomination to appear more than three times in a year. If no speaker is scheduled, council will observe a moment of silence.
Glendale’s program will allow speakers to deliver prayers or invocations at each meeting, free of council or staff review, as long as they they do not proselytize their faith or disparage others. The mayor’s office will keep a list of such speakers, who will be scheduled on a first-come-first-serve basis.
“The 20-point guideline, which establishes how we go about the prayer, makes a simple and meaningful thing complicated and bureaucratic,” Knaack said.
Alvarez pointed out that most people could pull a dollar bill from their wallets, which clearly says “In God We Trust.”
“Let us not be hypocrites,” Alvarez said said.
Weiers, a former state representative, told his colleagues during an August workshop meeting that prayers have been offered before sessions in the state Legislature for more than a century without problem. However, a secular invocation caused a stir in May when Rep. Juan Mendez, D-Tempe, who is atheist, offered the invocation to ask lawmakers to celebrate their “shared humanness.” The next day, state Rep. Steve Smith, R-Maricopa, who is Christian, asked lawmakers to join him in a second daily prayer in repentance for Mendez’s secular invocation.
Other Valley cities that include prayer or invocations during meetings include Chandler, Phoenix, Goodyear, Gilbert, Mesa and Litchfield Park, according to Glendale staff.
In 2011, Litchfield Park Councilman Peter Mahoney started walking out during prayers or invocations because he is a firm believer in separating church and state, he said.
The same year, the Chandler Unified School District went the opposite direction. It switched from public prayers to moments of reflection after officials at an Arizona School Boards Association law conference suggested that boards avoid prayers to prevent lawsuits.
The court has treated prayer before legislative bodies differently than it has treated prayer before educational bodies. For example, in 1992, the Supreme Court held that prayer during high school graduation ceremonies was unconstitutional.
The difference is that children may not excuse themselves from school functions, whereas city council meeting-goers may, said Paul Bender, a constitutional-law professor at Arizona State University.
Prayer during school functions also borders on the line of indoctrination or conveying a message about the government’s priorities, he added.
“One assumes the city council members are OK with it, that they’re adults. If they’re OK with it, what’s the harm,” Bender said.
But governments, too, can appear to convey a message or a priority if they open meetings with prayers each time, he said.
Martinez and Knaack both said they worried the new policy would cause problems. Martinez read letters sent by religious constituents asking council to vote against the prayer.
Father Jim Turner of Saint Thomas More in north Glendale wrote that all religions have different ways of invoking their deities, and having to adjust prayers in council chambers to make them non-offensive to others would be inappropriate and offensive to him.
Martinez had also said he preferred the moment of silence because it allowed him to pray as he wished.
Haynes made a similar observation about prayer at government meetings.
“What it ends up being is a watered-down, to-whom-it-may-concern prayer, which is not real prayer for some people.”