Bahai News -- Cities grapple with prayer

Cities grapple with prayer

By Karyn Hsiao
The Salt Lake Tribune

The law is on the side of public prayer. It is perfectly legal before government gatherings. Congress does it. So does the Legislature. But do invocations have a prayer at, say, city council meetings?

A recent Utah Supreme Court ruling involving Murray already is causing cities heartburn.

The state's high court says public officials must accept all prayers, no matter their content or to whom they are addressed -- be it Allah, Buddha, Baal, God the Father, Goddess Mother, the Great Spirit, Jesus Christ, Krishna, Mother Earth, even Satan. Not to mention ancestors, other humans, patron saints or no one at all.

"The court says government can't sit in judgment of people's prayers and say, 'Prayers to Mother Earth are OK, but prayers to Satan are not,' " civil-rights attorney Brian Barnard says.

Barnard represents Holladay resident Tom Synder, who sued Murray in 1994 for not allowing him to pray to "Our Mother, who art in heaven" at a City Council meeting.

Several lawsuits and a decade later, Synder's state court victory has Utah cities scrambling to retool their policies to address the possibility that someone may seek to utter an offbeat or off-color prayer, or even one of protest.

Not surprisingly, Murray is at the head of the pack.

In a memo to council members earlier this year, Murray City Attorney Frank Nakamura urged the central Salt Lake Valley community to "suspend invocations" -- for now.

It did.

"The Utah Supreme Court decision creates a dilemma for the city," Nakamura says. The ruling, he notes, appears to conflict with a 10th U.S. Circuit Court ruling that says public prayer runs "afoul" of the U.S. Constitution if it preaches a belief or disparages another faith or doctrine.

"Federal courts would not allow a prayer that aggressively criticizes others and proselytizes a certain belief, while the Utah Supreme Court requires that such a prayer should be allowed to preserve neutrality," Nakamura writes in the memo.

So complying with one court's decision may violate the other's. Anxious to avoid litigation, city attorneys are warning their councils about the risks of public supplication.

Pray or nay: Taylorsville City Attorney John Brems is offering his council members two options:

"We either allow everyone an opportunity to give their reverence or prayer -- completely uncensored -- and risk violating the U.S. Constitution, or we don't have reverence at all."

Council members frown at the latter suggestion.

"It really, really bothers me that we are continually caving in to these types of issues and challenges," Councilman Bruce Wasden says. "Some issues are worth fighting for."

Adds fellow Councilman Ken Cook: "Some of [our public prayers] have been colorful; some you couldn't understand; but having them is a celebration of our diversity of religion. And even though I might not be of the same religion, it's refreshing to me to hear people asking of God in their own way."

But the state's two most populous cities -- Salt Lake City and West Valley City -- already have forsaken meeting prayers because of previous lawsuits and complaints. Salt Lake City instead opens its meetings with the Pledge of Allegiance only, and West Valley City's elected leaders take turns sharing inspiring or motivational thoughts.

Some communities devised other ways to wiggle around the prayer predicament. Ogden begins city business with a moment of silence, and Alta reserves 15 minutes before its council meetings for meditation.

Salt Lake City attorney Todd Godfrey -- who represents Bluffdale, Draper, Woods Cross, Farmington and Centerville -- has reviewed the prayer issue with his clients but they have not decided whether to change their policies. Attorneys for South Salt Lake, Herriman, West Jordan and South Jordan all plan to tackle the issue with their councils in coming weeks.

Until then, "if anybody would request to give the prayer, we would grant that and follow the law," South Jordan City Attorney Paul Thompson says.

Like Murray, Holladay has silenced public prayers temporarily before city meetings.

Craig Hall, attorney for the east Salt Lake Valley city, is waiting to see if the Utah Supreme Court agrees to rehear Murray's case and says he has not yet decided how Holladay can bring prayer back to meeting agendas.

But Council Chairwoman Sandy Thackeray hopes it is soon.

"We've gone without a reverence for almost two months, and I miss it," Thackeray says. "It sets a tone, kind of like paying respect, that quite often carries over into the meeting."

Time's up: For those cities praying for an uncensored prayer period with built-in damage control, time limits may be the answer. Residents could pray however and to whomever they wished -- within an allotted time.

"There's no problem at all with a time limit. It's content-neutral," Barnard says. "It's a reasonable time, place, manner restriction."

Taylorsville Councilman Russ Wall likes the idea, saying such rules would "stop someone with a 17-page dossier without interfering with religious freedom."

But who, while praying, keeps track of time?

Not Gwen Stidham-North. In fact, the associate pastor of the Mount Olympus Presbyterian Church says public prayer should reach beyond such earthly concerns toward "a higher power."

"Prayer enables us, no matter who we are, to know that we are not all there is to life," Stidham-North says. "If I'm sitting in a City Council meeting and there's a general prayer, not even to Jesus Christ, I can appreciate that."

It's no secret, however, that most Utah cities start their meetings with a Judeo-Christian prayer. Often they have a Mormon bent.

Glen Booman, public information representative of the Baha'i Faith in Salt Lake City, cannot recall a time when representatives of his faith were invited to pray at a public meeting anywhere in the valley. The faith is not considered Christian, Booman says, nor does it conclude its prayers with "amen."

"Sometimes at the end of a prayer we'll say, 'Baha'u'llah,' which is the name of our founder."

And leaders of the faith might bow out rather than pray at a public meeting, Booman says, if "it's associated in any way to local politics."

Yet others may welcome the opportunity to openly politicize their divine plea by asking for a favorable vote on a resolution or the victory of a candidate.

Dearth of diversity: If veiled political threats or personal attacks wedge their way into a municipal meeting prayer, the council's leader shoulders the responsibility of resolving the situation while navigating any legal land mines.

That may explain why South Salt Lake, South Jordan and West Valley City now rotate their prayer responsibilities among elected officials only.

"It started out that we [council members] would rotate the responsibility of finding someone to come in, but it usually ends up with the council person doing the prayer," South Salt Lake Councilman Shane Siwik says.

That practice troubles Barnard.

"Due to the makeup of our population and the makeup of our elected officials, there is a great potential that only one religious set of beliefs is going to be offered, and we're back to a monopoly, not diversity," he says.

So it is in South Salt Lake. "We are all of the predominant religion, and we recognize the need for more diversity in our opening ceremonies," Siwik says.

But Riverton and Provo say their informal prayer policies do not need adjustment. In both places, a city official asks a member of the public to offer the prayer just before the meeting.

"There's no time limit, but we've never had an issue with it," Riverton City Administrator Mark Cram says. "Everyone has always been very appropriate, and I hope we never have to worry about that."

But communities around the state may not escape scrutiny for long.

Barnard says Synder is considering bringing his legal litmus test to other cities. "After we have a final decision, we're going to see what other cities are doing," Barnard says.


Tribune reporter Kristen Moulton contributed to this story.

©Copyright 2003, The Salt Lake Tribune (UT, USA)

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