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S.L. OFFICIAL SAYS BANNING PRAYER IS LIKE BANNING PLEDGE

Protesting a court decision he believes denies the existence of God, one Salt Lake City councilman wants to stop the recitation of the pledge of allegiance before each meeting at City Hall.

Councilman Ron Whitehead said Thursday he is angered by a district judge's ruling this week that prayers at council meetings violate the Utah Constitution. He said the council might as well stop reciting the pledge before each meeting because it makes reference to God."Who's to say this group won't try to stop that, too," he said, referring to the Society of Separationists, which sued to stop the prayers. "This court decision is taking away a lot of rights from a lot of people."

The City Council met behind closed doors for more than 40 minutes Thursday to discuss the case with City Attorney Roger Cutler. The council then decided to wait until March 17 to decide whether to appeal the ruling to the Utah Supreme Court.

In his ruling, Judge J. Dennis Frederick said the wording of the constitution's provision separating church andstate means no public funds can be expended for religious purposes.

That includes using city employees to arrange for clergy to pray at meetings, and taking time out of meetings to listen to prayers.

Members of the separationist's group said they want everyone to be free to worship or not worship as they please, without government interference.

"Religion is divisive, and religious domination of government is a serious problem in this state," said Chris Allen, director of the society's Utah chapter. "The City Council is using religion as a tool to lend authority to its actions."

The feelings of other council members were unclear. Nancy Pace and Tom Godfrey have voted consistently against holding prayers before meetings. The other five have at times voted in favor of the practice.

Cutler said an appeal would cost the city little, considering it has its own staff of attorneys. However, he declined to say what he will recommend to the council.

Distancing herself from the issue, Mayor Deedee Corradini said the City Council must decide.

The ruling is expected to change the practices of many Utah cities. The state Legislature also opens its meetings with prayer, and some lawmakers said it will take a separate court order to stop that practice.