With a vote Tuesday night to appeal a court-ordered ban on its prayers at meetings, the Salt Lake City Council has thrown down a legal gauntlet that could carry the fight into the state constitutional arena.
Failing victory at the Utah Supreme Court - where the case goes next - supporters of prayers at public meetings vow to amend the Utah Constitution, which has a more restrictive separation clause than the U.S. Constitution."This issue is about taking away our right to free speech," said City Councilman Ronald J. Whitehead during an emotion-charged meeting that began with a thwarted attempt at prayer. "I firmly believe we need God more today than ever before."
Whitehead's motion to appeal the ban passed 5-2, with council members Nancy Pace and Tom Godfrey voting no, and Paul Hutchinson, Alan Hardman, Roselyn Kirk and Don C. Hale voting yes.
Addressing the council at the start of its meeting, Riverton City Councilman Brent C. Richards called public prayer a "matter of conscience" and then attempted to recite the Lord's Prayer. Before he could finish, the sergeant at arms was ordered to escort him from the chambers.
The ban was imposed March 4 by 3rd District Judge J. Dennis Frederick, who agreed with the Society of Separationists that the state's constitution clearly prohibits government support of religious practices.
"By encouraging, supporting, allowing or condoning religious worship before its sessions, the city council uses public funds to aid and support the religious practice of prayer," Frederick said.
His ruling caught most local elected officials by surprise and prompted some city councils to suspend the practice pending a more definitive legal decision, even though Frederick's order doesn't apply to them. Those who did back off said they couldn't afford the legal fight threatened by the separationists.
But Salt Lake officials opted to pursue the fight despite the cost, arguing that the United States and Utah were founded upon religious principles and that invocations by public bodies, including Congress, have been a tradition ever since."Should the Utah Supreme Court reverse the lower court, then the answer should be settled for all Utah legislative bodies," Hale said. "If not, the answer may be to settle it through the constitutional-amendment pro-cess."
Separationist attorney Brian Barnard responded, "I assume they can make the argument that if the specific constitutional provision were removed it might affect the outcome, but they would be shortsighted to do so because the reason that provision was put there was to protect religion from government."
Barnard said once government gets into the business of endorsing or encouraging religion, "it becomes too easy a step to go to control of religion."
As for the appeal, Barnard said it might be a good thing because a state Supreme Court order would be applicable to all governing bodies in the state, not just the Salt Lake City Council. He estimates the cost of the appeal at about $10,000 for each side.
Pace argued that the city shouldn't devote so much time, energy, attention and taxpayer money to a cause that need not divide people.
"I call upon God daily in prayer for guidance," Pace said. "Not having prayer at the city council meeting doesn't take God out of my life."
Godfrey said that although he considers the separationist's lawsuit "petty," he has never been comfortable with the city's prayer policy and can no longer support it in light of Frederick's ruling. The constitutional language is "unequivocal and unambiguous," he said.
Godfrey said he also was troubled by the emotion of the discussion, citing the Riverton councilman's comment that those who practice religious beliefs have throughout history "been smitten at the heels by vipers."
Kirk said she was voting to appeal because an unscientific poll of her constituents showed they favored further action by a 3-1 margin. Hutchinson said he is neutral on the issue but voted to appeal because of the sentiment of his constituents.
Hardman said the Utah Constitutional Convention opened each of its sessions with prayer and the resulting Utah Constitution opens with the words, "Grateful to Almighty God for life and liberty, we the people. . . ." The state's Territorial Legislature, its successor and almost every other legislative body in Utah has started its meetings with prayers ever since, he said.
However, of the 40 meetings of the Salt Lake City Council last year, 23 opened with no invocation, Hardman said. "That ought to satisfy the atheists and the ACLU," he added, saying he was "sick and tired" of their "intolerance."
"If they are successful, who will they attack next? What will be their next target, the Pledge of Allegiance?"
Meanwhile, the West Jordan City Council is reviewing the matter and expects to make a decision at its next meeting.
However, West Jordan Mayor Ken Miller said, "It's my personal opinion - and there's a wide variety of discussion the issue - but I expect if we don't have a prayer in the council meeting, we'll have one out on the front lawn before we go into the council meeting."
Miller said there are West Jordan people who want to fight the issue and others who want to wait and see what happens with Salt Lake City.
"My personal opinion is that city councils not only ought to have the right, but do have the right, to ask for help from a higher source for the Decisions they make," Miller said.
Local governments' prayer policies
Davis School Board Introductory phrase No change
Granite School Board Inspirational thought No change
Jordan School Board Inspirational thought No change
Murray School Board Invocation No change
S.L. School Board Inspirational thought No change
Salt Lake County Moment of silence Discontinued
Bluffdale Invocation Under review
Bountiful Invocation No change
Draper Invocation No change
Midvale Moment of silence Under review
Murray Invocation Suspended
North Salt Lake Invocation Under review
Orem Invocation Under review
Provo Invocation No change
Riverton Invocation No change
Salt Lake City Interdenomin. invocation Suspended
Sandy Invocation No change
South Salt Lake Invocation Under review
West Jordan Invocation Under review
West Valley City Invocation Suspended
Woods Cross Invocation Suspended