Decorative Scales of Justice in the Courtroom

Written by Don Byrd

Last year’s controversial Supreme Court ruling in Town of Greece upheld a policy allowing sectarian prayer to open council meetings.  The Court was clear in its opinion, however, that the Constitution places some limits on such government-sponsored prayer policies. A policy that is discriminatory in nature on the basis of religion, for example, would seem to run afoul of the First Amendment.

Notwithstanding the Court’s admonition regarding discrimination, the city council of Coolidge, Arizona, initially voted to approve a policy that even its own attorney warns is unlawful: limiting opening prayers to only Christian invocations.

I will let Dahlia Lithwick, writing for Slate, tell the story:

After [Councilman Rob] Hudelson moved to amend the resolution to permit only Christian prayer, city attorney Denis Fitzgibbons explained that this would violate the Constitution. “That would complicate things,” Fitzgibbons jumped in: “The council would then be establishing Christianity (as the religion).”

No matter. [Councilman Gary] Lewis seconded the amendment, and it passed. Coolidge Mayor Jon Thompson and Councilman Gilbert Lopez voted against the amended resolution, with Thompson pointing out that the town would be sued: “I’m not going to get the taxpayers sued,” Thompson said. “If I had a problem with what was being said during the prayer, I wouldn’t pay attention. … We’re going to knowingly become involved in litigation that we cannot afford.”

Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed. The council subsequently voted to reject the amendment and stuck with a prayer policy that allows clergy of any faith to deliver the invocation. As Lithwick points out, this change may result in the same outcome: exclusively Christian prayer, since the presence of minority faiths within Coolidge appears to be limited.

Meanwhile, in Coral Springs, Florida, the City Commission has chosen to abandon opening invocations altogether, rather than entertain a request for participation from a local activist claiming to worship Satan.