New Phoenix (AZ) City Council Policy Allows Only Christian Chaplains to Give Invocation Prayers

Back in January, we learned that the Phoenix (Arizona) City Council had given the green light to members of The Satanic Temple to deliver an invocation prayer at a meeting on February 17.

Satanic Templars Michelle Shortt (below) and Stu de Haan would be delivering the address:

Shortt

But as soon as word got out about this, city officials tried to put the genie back in the bottle.

At the end of the month, council members held an “emergency meeting” that would shut the door to the Satanists. Instead of having an open forum where anyone could request a date to deliver an invocation prayer, they want to create a rotating system where invocation speakers would have to be pre-approved.

City Manager Ed Zuercher said in a statement Friday night that, at the council members’ request, he would add an agenda item for next Wednesday’s meeting that would change the way the city schedules groups that lead the prayer.

The current system allows groups to call the city clerk’s office to schedule a date. The new system would mimic what the state legislature does: The mayor and eight council members would select the prayer leader on a rotating basis.

The four council members — Jim Waring; Sal DiCiccio; Bill Gates; and Michael Nowakowski — want the new rule adopted with an emergency clause, allowing it to take effect within 24 hours. Waring told 12 News that the Satanists would then be disinvited.

This was a lawsuit waiting to happen. If city council members were able to pre-approve invocation speakers, what hope would there be for non-Christians? What ratio would they even use — three Christians and a Jew on loop? Christian, Hindu, Christian, Muslim? There’s no answer you could give that wouldn’t exclude some group of people.

If their goal was to shut out The Satanic Temple, they were going to waste a lot of taxpayer money fighting a losing legal battle.

They seemed to understand that. A few days later, the council members announced that they would replace the invocation with a moment of silence. The move essentially prevented the Satanists from speaking, but the end result was still the preferred outcome: No invocations at all.

A moment of silence isn’t forced prayer, though, and that’s what some of the members wanted. So they changed it all up again earlier this month.

Phoenix City Council members voted 7-2 Wednesday night to restore a spoken prayer at council meetings, but the invocation would have to be given exclusively by chaplains for the police and fire departments.

We were now back to something unconstitutional: The City Council would only allow Christian chaplains to deliver the prayers.

To be clear, that vote was about the idea of bringing back the invocation. They hadn’t actually written or adopted the ordinance that a group like the Satanic Temple could then point to in a lawsuit. What’s really sad is that City Attorney Brad Holm felt this new rule would pass constitutional muster:

“The answer is it’s constitutional in accordance with a long line of cases, so the probabilities are that it would be upheld by a court,” Holm said of Wednesday’s council decision. “But that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be challenged in this particular case, and I’d rather not say in open session what I suspect the outcome of a challenge (would be).”

I don’t know where he got his law degree, but he’s wrong. The Supreme Court’s decision in Greece v. Galloway — at least as we’ve seen it applied — says invocations must be open to everyone no matter how uncomfortable the result may be. Either everyone gets to speak in turn or no one gets to.

Leading up to yesterday’s vote, council member Sal DiCiccio sent a letter to supporters urging them to attend the meeting and call their representatives, all to bring Jesus back to Phoenix:

Tomorrow, March 23rd, just before Easter, the Phoenix City Council is set to vote to bring back prayer into our council meetings.

WE NEED YOUR HELP. Please send this letter to anyone and everyone that will help bring back prayer to Phoenix.

The pressure worked. Yesterday, the council voted 6-2 in favor of bringing chaplain-led prayer back to meetings:

After the vote, supporters in the audience clapped, and Councilman Sal DiCiccio and conservative activist Cathi Herrod, president of the Center for Arizona Policy, issued statements cheering the outcome.

“Prayer has been a part of the legislative process throughout our nation’s and our state’s history,” Herrod said. “Allowing this cherished tradition to continue with a common sense, respectful policy is the right decision for the city of Phoenix and its citizens.”

It’s not common sense and it’s not respectful. The City Council is effectively shutting out non-Christian perspectives from giving invocations.

Lucien Greaves, spokesperson for The Satanic Temple, told me they are preparing to file a lawsuit.

I don’t see how the city council gets out of this one. What they’re doing is blatantly unconstitutional. They need a new lawyer and the voters need smarter representatives.

(Large portions of this article were published earlier)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the editor of Friendly Atheist, appears on the Atheist Voice channel on YouTube, and co-hosts the uniquely-named Friendly Atheist Podcast. You can read much more about him here.