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COURT RULING ON S.L. PRAYERS RANKLES DAVIS OFFICIALS

It's not so much a matter of prayer or religion as it is freedom of speech, say city officials in Davis County. They're responding to the issue of opening their meetings with an invocation.

City councils meeting throughout Utah reacted last week to a letter received from the American Civil Liberties Union urging them to discontinue prayers or invocations in council meetings.The letter follows a 3rd District Court ruling that the Salt Lake City Council has been violating the Utah Constitution by opening its sessions with a prayer - a ruling the council Tuesday voted to appeal. Cities responded in a variety of ways:

- Fruit Heights council members discussed the matter Tuesday for about 10 minutes and opted to continue their policy of opening meetings with an invocation, but also decided to invite representatives of various religions to participate to recognize the diversity of the community.

- Kaysville Mayor Brit Howard said his city's practice of leaving the type of opening to the discretion of the individual asked to perform it will continue. Some pray, some lead a flag pledge, Howard said, and that will continue unless a court orders it halted.

- Centerville Councilman Michael Barton said, "We're not going to take it lying down," referring to his city's decision this week to continue invocations. Centerville's request Wednesday at the Davis Council of Governments meeting to join Salt Lake City's appeal as a friend of the court, however, met with a cool reception.

- Bountiful Mayor Robert Linnell suggested that no action be taken on the issue. Council members agreed. "I think we should ignore it. Stay low key, keep on doing what we're doing until they come after us," Linnell suggested.

- The Farmington City Council opened its Wednesday night meeting with a prayer from the pastor of a local non-denominational community church.

"We've had no discussion on the issue," said Farmington City Manager Max Forbush. "Nothing has come from the mayor or the council to direct us to do anything different."

- The Davis County Commission hasn't opened its twice-a-week meetings with either a prayer or a pledge for decades and that won't change either, commission chairman Gayle Stevenson said.

"Historically, we never have had an opening prayer or a pledge. It's never been discussed, it's never been an issue," Stevenson said. "No one has an objection either way; it's something that's never been done or discussed."

"We don't open with a prayer, but we do plenty of praying on some of the issues that come up," Commissioner J. Dell Holbrook joked.

Fruit Heights Mayor Blaine Nelson said the ACLU's letter was referred to city attorney Gary Sargent, who advised the council the court ruling applies only to Salt Lake City and not to Davis County, unless an appeals court upholds and broadens it.

The ACLU's opinion that the decision is binding on other municipal bodies is premature and an advocacy position, Sargent advised the council.

"We have an obligation not to impose religion on our citizens," Nelson said. "I feel strongly that government should stay out of religion. But you can't keep religion out of government because you can't ask the people involved in government to leave their religious convictions behind them when they come into it."

Nelson said the council didn't take a vote, simply reached a consensus based on its discussion. Citizens attending the meeting upheld the decision, he said.

"I feel I've lost some freedom, some freedom of speech. Prayer isn't really the issue here," Howard said.

"It's restricting our freedom of speech at a public meeting. We have an outside body now dictating what we can or can't say in our public meeting," Howard said.

His council, too, discussed the issue briefly and decided to continue its current practice. By chance, a public hearing on a rezoning request on the agenda packed the council chambers with city residents and Howard said they support the council's decision.

"We don't put an invocation or prayer on the agenda. We haven't for a couple of years. But we have a council member or city staff member or someone else open the meeting.

"Most of the time, 75 or 85 percent of the time, it's with the pledge of allegiance. But it could be a prayer or whatever the person wants. They could read a selection of poetry if they want, or just have a moment of silence," Howard said.

"It really rankled a lot of people," Barton said of his fellow council members from Centerville. "It's outrageous, in our opinion. It's our belief that it's our right to continue the practice of opening with an invocation and we're going to do so."

In other cities across Davis County:

- Sunset: Mayor Norm Sant discussed the ACLU letter at a City Council meeting on March 17. Sant said Sunset will continue prayers unless a court orders the city to cease.

- Clearfield: For the time being, the City Council voted 4-1 to continue the practice of prayer before all council meetings.

- Syracuse: The issue hasn't been addressed by the council yet. The council's last meeting opened with a prayer.

- Clinton: The City Council has not addressed the issue yet.

- West Point: The City Council has not had a meeting to address the issue since the prayer controversy started.

- Layton: Mayor James Layton said the City Council has no current plans to address the prayer issue. Its March 19 meeting included an opening prayer as usual.

Staff writer Lynn Arave contributed to this story.