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IS CONSTITUTIONAL CHANGE ANSWER TO PRAYER VERDICT?

A Third District judge's ruling this week striking down Salt Lake City Council's traditional practice of open-ing meetings with prayer is a disappointment. The decision threatens other bodies - including the Utah Legislature - with similar restrictions and is sure to be seen as an attack on religion in general.

People talk about tolerance in religious views or even non-religious attitudes. To be sure, it is an admirable virtue. But that virtue must extend in both directions; tolerance for minority views must be balanced with tolerance for cherished and tradition-filled majority practices. It cannot be all of one and none of the other.The verdict is odd in some respects since Congress and other official bodies around the United States start their sessions with prayer, a practice sustained by courts under the U.S. Constitution.

But Judge J. Dennis Frederick said his verdict was based on the Utah Constitution, which is more restrictive in this regard than the national document. The judge said he had less room for interpretation. The lawsuit, by a group known as the Society of Separationists, was undoubtedly filed with that in mind.

The ruling can produce a peculiar situation in which there is less public expression of religion allowed at official meetings in Utah than the rest of the nation. Or are Congress plus the legislatures and local government councils in other states to be the next targets of the anti-prayer forces?

The Utah Constitution says "No public money or property shall be appropriated for or applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction. . . . " This week's court ruling held that by planning for and presenting public prayers as part of opening ceremonies, the City Council was using public funds to support the religious practice of prayer.

Since the time involved is so minuscule and participation is voluntary, it's hard to see where prayer has any financial impact on the cost of holding council meetings. Declaring this to be the equivalent of using public funds seems to be stretching the point almost beyond recognition.

However, the eventual solution may be to amend the Utah Constitution so that it is more in line with the U.S. Constitution. The restrictive Utah language was originally adopted at the conclusion of a struggle for long-delayed statehood. Church-state issues were the center of that struggle and colored the resulting constitution.

If a state constitutional amendment were to be offered, the issue would have to be decided by public vote. Meanwhile, it's unfortunate that mutual tolerance, goodwill and compromise cannot substitute for one-sided, all-or-nothing demands and legalistic solutions.