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Church State Issues

Valley cities' prayer policies may face scrutiny

Sep 19, 2013

Arizona Republic

By Caitlin McGlade The Republic |

Thu Sep 19, 2013 9:15 AM

Glendale this month joined other West Valley cities that pray before politics, a practice the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on soon.

The Glendale City Council will now allow speakers to volunteer to offer a two-minute prayer or invocation during meetings to “solemnize” council business, replacing the moment of silence that had been in place.

Other Valley cities that include prayer or invocations during meetings include Chandler, Phoenix, Goodyear, Gilbert, Mesa and Litchfield Park, according to Glendale staff.

Mayor Jerry Weiers, along with council members Norma Alvarez, Sam Chavira and Ian Hugh, voted in favor of the measure. Vice Mayor Yvonne Knaack, joined by council members 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.

More than 30 Arizona municipalities convene council meetings with prayers or invocations, according to research compiled by Glendale staff.

But protocols could change depending on the outcome of a case that the Supreme Court agreed to consider when the court’s new term begins in October.

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, D.C.

The court left much unclear, such as whether prayers should 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 lower courts. Haynes said the high court likely agreed to take up the latest case to set straight the differing rulings.

The case before the Supreme Court examines prayer before meetings 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.

Town officials argued that most of their messages were Christian simply because most of the speakers who volunteered were of that faith.

The Republic reported in June that more than 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 use 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?

Haynes said such models result in minorities feeling 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 appearing more than three times in a year. If no speaker is scheduled, the 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 do not proselytize their faith or disparage others.

“The 20-point guideline, which establishes how we go about the prayer, makes a simple and meaningful thing complicated and bureaucratic,” Knaack 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.

In 2011, Litchfield Park Councilman Peter Mahoney started walking out during prayers because he firmly believes in separation of church and state.

Martinez and Knaack both said they worried the new policy would cause problems. Martinez read letters sent by religious constituents asking the council to vote against the prayer.

Father Jim Turner of Saint Thomas More Parish 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.

“What it ends up being is a watered-down, to-whom-it-may-concern prayer, which is not real prayer for some people.”


School prayer treated differently

The Chandler Unified School District 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 from how 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 people attending city council meetings s may, said Paul Bender, a constitutional-law professor at Arizona State University.

Prayer during school functions also borders on 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.

No. It blurs the separation between church and state.Yes. Prayer brings people together.Maybe. As long as council members have the option to sit out.