Phoenix City Council replaces prayer with moment of silence - Tucson News Now

Phoenix City Council replaces prayer with moment of silence

Phoenix City Council meeting on Feb. 3, 2016 (Source: City of Phoenix) Phoenix City Council meeting on Feb. 3, 2016 (Source: City of Phoenix)
Prayer or Satan? Phoenix CIty Council set to choose (Photo source: The Satanic Temple) Prayer or Satan? Phoenix CIty Council set to choose (Photo source: The Satanic Temple)
MESA, AZ (3TV/CBS 5) -

The Phoenix City Council on Wednesday voted 5-4 to implement a "moment of silent prayer" at the start of its meetings rather than the invocations that have been the tradition for more than six decades.

"Tonight the Phoenix City Council approved amending the practice related to invocations," city spokeswoman Julie Watters said in a prepared statement. "Effective immediately, and from this point forward, the new practice for the invocation will be a moment of silent prayer. The invocation is considered a city practice and the Council has the authority to change a city practice. At the next formal Phoenix City Council meeting on Wednesday, February 17, a moment of silent prayer will begin the meeting." 

That meeting was when a member of The Satanic Temple was planning to give the invocation.

Those who voted against the amendment Wednesday night called it the end of prayer in Phoenix even though the measure was not an ordinance and affects only the City Council meetings.

The City Council took up the contentious issue at its regular meeting Wednesday, listening to input from more than 50 members of the public who signed up to speak. The meeting, which was standing room only, started at 2:30 p.m., and while there were other items on the agenda, this issue was by far the one that garnered the most attention.

After hours of discussion, the vote itself happen shortly after 7:30 p.m. and took only moments.

  • Mayor Greg Stanton -- Yes
  • Councilwoman Thelda Williams (District 1) -- Yes
  • Councilman Jim Waring (District 2) -- No
  • Councilman Bill Gates (District 3) -- No
  • Councilwoman Laura Pastor (District 4) -- Yes
  • Vice Mayor Daniela Valenzuela (District 5) -- Yes
  • Councilman Sal DiCiccio (District 6) -- No
  • Councilman Michael Nowakowski (District 7) -- No
  • Councilwoman Kate Gallego (District 8) -- Yes

"The switch to a moment of silent prayer before city council meetings opens the door for private prayer in this public sphere without stifling anyone’s voice," Councilwoman Laura Pastor said in a statement. "In a moment of silent prayer and reflection, people of any faith or no faith can choose how to participate. And in that space and time, there is a unity of all of us. This change is good for inclusiveness, good for the protection of individual freedoms, and good for maintaining the separation of Church and State."

"The invocation prior to formal city council meetings has become a controversial issue as of late. While some wish to separate church and state and ban prayer, others wish to ban a certain viewpoint that, for the record, I too find repulsive," Vice Mayor Daniel Valenzuela said in his post-vote statement.

"Today, the city council approved a motion to begin each formal city council meeting with a moment of silent prayer and reflection. This protects the constitutional rights of all and allows people to individually pray to whomever they choose and reflect freely, peacefully and without fear. As a man of faith, I will personally choose to pray.

"Tonight's discussion, though important, has not made our community safer, has not grown our economy, has not made our schools safer or our water cleaner. Let us put an end to this polarizing debate that is designed to divide us, not bring us together, and refocus our efforts on the challenges and opportunities that face our city."  

The Satanic Temple responded to the decision via Twitter.

The legal landscape

The original motion was to change the way those who provide the invocation are chosen, but there was concern about violating Constitutional rights.

Phoenix City Attorney Brad Holm explained the legal framework in which the decision had to be made.

"The Council could change the schedule of speakers in prayer ... in the future," he said. "What we couldn't do is apply it retroactively, in this case, to a person who already booked the prayer for Feb. 17 back in December."

He said applying any change retroactively would be unconstitutional.

Holm said the woman who scheduled the prayer in accordance with the rules that were in place at the time has indicated that she will sue if her prayer is canceled. He also said he believed the city would have a hard time in prevailing in such a lawsuit.

There also is the issue of discriminating against "minority or unpopular" faiths. That could open the city up to the possibility of costly litigation.

Councilwoman Thelda Williams introduced an amendment to do away with the opening prayer in favor of a moment of silence.

Emotional and divisive issue

Some members of the public who expressed their opinions were soft-spoken while others were quite passionate.

Nobody specifically supported the Satanic Temple, which was scheduled to open the Feb. 17 City Council meeting with a satanic prayer, but some told the Council that it has no right to limit prayer or deny any group the opportunity to pray.

A couple of people specifically brought up the separation of church and state laid out in the First Amendment.

"If the government has no business in establishing religion, then they have no business regulating it either," one man said, going on to talk briefly about the right to free speech.

Another said he wanted to be on record as supporting Thomas Jefferson.

"A moment of silence prayer will cover all the beliefs," a third man said. "End of story."

Most people, however, were firmly against the idea of the Satanic Temple being allowed to pray at a City Council meeting.

"There are worse things to fear than a lawsuit. There is a Satan who wants to destroy us," a lawyer said. "Why invite him here?"

He was not alone in his opinion.

More than a few people who spoke cited the Bible and said they did not want Satan to have any place in the City Council's meetings.

Prayer vs. "Moment of silent prayer"

Councilman Sal DiCiccio was outspoken online in his to keep prayer and not replace it with a moment of silence. That, he tweeted, would a "big win" for Satanists.

"This is not going to stop tonight if we lose this vote," DiCiccio said, explaining his belief that the city attorney "rigged the presentation." He said he has heard from numerous residents of his district, all saying they want to keep the 65-year tradition of prayer in the City Council.

DiCiccio said he plans to take the issue to the public so they can vote on whether prayer will be banned or allowed in the City Council. He had a letter to that effect in his hand and planned to submit it pending the outcome of the vote and explained that he had already secured the support of the Valley's religious community.

"I'm submitting the letter right for you folks to know for the election," he said, holding up the letter right after the vote as City Council took a short break before wrapping up the items on its agenda.

DiCiccio said he would like the City Council to call for a public vote and put the issue on the May ballot. If that does not happen, he said supporters will start gathering the signatures necessary to put it on a future ballot.

Councilwoman Kate Gallego pointed out that elected officials made a mistake and weakened their legal footing when they stated their intent was to keep the Satanic Temple from offering an invocation.

"We dramatically hurt our legal case when we said it was our intention to deny one group the right to pray," she said.

She said the Council needed to tread carefully on the legal front and not put the taxpayers in the position of having to pay for potentially expensive lawsuits the city could face.

"We as elected officials have to take responsibility for our words, which weaken our legal case and put taxpayer money at risk," she continued.

Mayor Greg Stanton talked a bit about his faith.

"My faith gives me strength," he said. "Thanks to my faith, I'm certainly strong enough to withstand a 2-minute invocation from a group whose agenda and message doesn't reflect my own faith."

As the vote neared, Williams said she resented the implication that she was involved in any "rigging" of Wednesday's presentation and meeting. She went on to say that the City should not take on expensive litigation when that money could -- and should -- be spent on more important issues facing us.

The Feb. 17 invocation was the last one scheduled. Future scheduling was put on hold until the issue was resolved.

What would the invocation by The Satanic Temple have been?

Michelle Shortt, the Tucson woman who signed up to give the invocation at the Feb. 17 Phoenix City Council meeting, posted what she would have said on her Facebook page.

"Let us stand now, unbowed and unfettered by arcane doctrines born of fearful minds in darkened times. Let us embrace the Luciferian impulse to eat of the Tree of Knowledge and dissipate our blissful and comforting delusions of old. Let us demand that individuals be judged for their concrete actions, not their fealty to arbitrary social norms and illusory categorizations. Let us reason our solutions with agnosticism in all things, holding fast only to that which is demonstrably true. Let us stand firm against any and all arbitrary authority that threatens the personal sovereignty of One or All. That which will not bend must break, and that which can be destroyed by truth should never be spared its demise. It is Done. Hail Satan." 

She said she and her organization are fighting for secularism or at least religious pluralism.

"Our goal is to promote religious liberty within our State by demonstrating that all faiths are respected by the government of Arizona," she wrote on her Facebook page.

[RELATED: Prayer or Satan? Phoenix City Council set to choose]

[RELATED: City Hall moves to stop satanic group]

[RELATED: Satanists set to deliver prayer at Phoenix City Council meeting]

Copyright 2016 KPHO/KTVK (KPHO Broadcasting Corporation). All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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