For a long time the First Amendment language on religion has been interpreted to mean that government can’t favor one religion over another. In the past that usually meant that if a Catholic priest offered the prayer at a government event one month, the next month it was the Methodists’ turn. In some areas maybe a rabbi would figure into the mix. But with our increasingly multi-cultural society has come requests from groups outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition to offer prayers at things like state legislature sessions or city council meetings. Now a request from one of those groups is creating a controversy in Phoenix, Arizona.
Phoenix city council members are trying to stop a group of Satanists from offering the prayer at the beginning of the February 17 council meeting. The city has signed off on the Satanists’ participation. City Attorney Brad Holm released a statement that says in part:
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.
Council member Jim Waring says that the Satanic Temple’s intention is to “make a mockery of the invocation.” So he and three other council members have set out to try and prevent the Satanist group from participating, by changing the rules.
Stu de Haan, the Satanic Temple member who submitted the request to do the invocation, says that the group doesn’t believe that Satan actually exists, and that the term “Satan” is used in the Bible to signify rebellion. He says that the group made the request to insure that minority religious groups were not excluded from participating in the prayer that opens city council meetings.
The proposal being presented by Waring and his three colleagues is to have each council member and the mayor take turns inviting various religious groups to provide the invocation. City Attorney Holm says the proposal is similar to what is done in Washington, D.C., where congressmen will sometimes invite a constituent to offer the prayer before a session of Congress. He says that the change would not directly eliminate the Satanic Temple from participating. But that is obviously its exact intent.
de Haan hinted at legal action if the proposal passes. He said:
If they open themselves to liability, we will respond appropriately and legally. It’s clearly discriminatory and targeted at the Satanic Temple.
This situation brings up the issue of why some seem feel it is necessary to hold a prayer to open a public meeting. That is apparently exactly the point the Satanic Temple is making. After all, not only does the U.S. Constitution separate the affairs of church and state, Jesus himself instructed his followers not to pray in public, but rather to shut themselves in a closet and pray in private. But then again, when do modern American “Christians” listen to what Jesus said, anyway?
Here’s a report on the council’s debate:
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