Rather than allow the prayer, members of the city council voted on February 3 to discontinue the practice of opening their public meetings with prayer. A moment of silence would be used instead. Receiving local and national criticism for that decision, the council then voted on March 3 to reinstate a spoken prayer before the meetings, but the prayer will now be given only by chaplains for the Phoenix police and fire departments—among which there are presumably no Satanists.
In support of the city’s initial decision to allow Satanists to deliver an invocation, a city attorney argued: “Consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court’s direction, the city cannot dictate religious viewpoints or the content of a prayer. In addition, government may not exclude a denomination or a religion from praying under these circumstances.” While at least one city council member wanted to reject the request and make the Satanists battle it out in court, the mayor and others on the council accepted the idea that offering an invitation to pray to some religions opened the door to all religions being given an equal opportunity.
The Supreme Court ruled on the prayer issue as recently as 2014 in another town board meeting case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, specifically finding that the town did not have to limit prayers before meetings to “generic, nonsectarian” prayers to satisfy the Constitution. The town was free to invite members of Christian denominations and other faiths to pray, “so long as the town maintains a policy of nondiscrimination.”
What is very interesting in the Galloway case is the reason prayers are allowed at governmental meetings. In school prayer cases, public prayers have been found to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment because they endorse a particular religious belief – something the government should not do. But in other cases where the government acknowledges a belief in God (prayers before legislatures and town boards, the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the motto “In God We Trust” on U.S. coins), the courts have allowed a religious expression by the government because it furthers a non-religious purpose. In Galloway, the purpose is that an opening prayer “lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”
Why can’t the government endorse a particular religious belief? That has been the Court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause since it was first given the opportunity to interpret it.
- Neither a state nor the Federal Government can…pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another…. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.” (Everson v. Board of Education of Ewing Township, 330 U.S. 1 (1947))
Of course, Christians have different ideas about that “wall of separation between Church and State.” To fully understand my viewpoint, you’ll have to read my book, One Nation Under God: A Christian Argument in Favor of Separation of Church and State.
Dustin Gardiner, Satanists to give prayer at Phoenix City Council meeting, The Republic, January 29, 2016 < http://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/phoenix/2016/01/28/satanists-give-prayer-phoenix-city-council-meeting/79486460/>