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Public prayers plentiful around the S.L. Valley

But some councils abstain or have more general ‘reverences’

SHARE Public prayers plentiful around the S.L. Valley

The prayer question elicits a moment of silence from many city leaders.

Asked whether he begins City Council meetings by praying, South Salt Lake Mayor Randy Fitts pauses. Then, a reluctant "Ah, here we go."

Fitts almost groans as he addresses an issue that provokes strong feelings, arguments and lawsuits, in Utah and around the country. Yes, we pray, he says. But he prefers to call it a "moment of reflection."

Last month the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that prayers at public school events, such as football games, are unconstitutional. Praying over a loudspeaker promotes religion to an impressionable young audience, the court said, and that violates the separation of church and state.

But a few weeks later the Colorado State Board of Education came out with what sounds like a contradiction: The board now encourages the posting of "In God We Trust" in schools. Some groups, including the Denver Interfaith Alliance, say that's unconstitutional, pointing to the Supreme Court's decision banning public-school references to God.

In Utah, public prayers are plentiful. The state Legislature and State Board of Education members bow their heads at the start of their meetings, as do many city councils and school boards.

"My feeling is that we need as much help as we can get," Fitts said. Other mayors, including Tom Dolan of Sandy and Liane Stillman of Holladay, say exactly the same thing. Depending on the city, officials call the request for help a prayer, an invocation ("the act of calling on God") or a reverence ("a feeling of deep respect, love and awe, as for something sacred").

But other city leaders aren't asking for such help. The Salt Lake City Council, Salt Lake City Board of Education and West Valley City Council haven't a prayer at their meetings. Nor do some of the nation's more beleaguered cities: Council members in Los Angeles; Littleton, Colo.; and Washington, D.C., don't pray — openly, anyway.

On the other hand, prayers are offered in places known for their revelry, including New Orleans, Las Vegas and Chico, Calif. So far no one in those cities has won a court fight against public amens. But in Cleveland, a 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals case did rule that school boards who pray at their meetings are flouting the Constitution. That 6th Circuit ban in March 1999 applies only to Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee.

Utah is within the 10th Circuit, along with Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico, Kansas and Oklahoma, and so far no one has challenged school-board prayers here.

City councils and parks and recreation boards have long made public pleas for divine guidance — though the Utah Supreme Court had to clarify the constitutionality of those practices. In 1993, the Society of Separationists sued the Salt Lake City Council, complaining that their prayers, then said at the start of weekly meetings, didn't belong in a government setting. The court ruled against the Separationists and said that public prayers are protected by the Utah Constitution.

But soon after that case was closed, the Salt Lake City Council chose to abandon its invocations, perhaps to avoid contending with any more complaints.

"It gives a false impression that somehow these officials are being directed by a higher power and therefore, their decisions are wiser or better," said Salt Lake civil rights attorney Brian Barnard. "It's not the kind of thing government should be doing. Yes, the court says city councils can do it. But that does not necessarily make it right."

Still, Salt Lake City is surrounded by prayerful communities, including Sandy, Draper, South Salt Lake and Midvale.

Barnard says that city council prayers could be on shaky ground, in light of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling against public invocations. The high court said public schools shouldn't sponsor prayers when impressionable children are present — and Barnard noted that school board meeting audiences often include students. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts frequently give the pledge of allegiance for city councils. "To get their government merit badge, they come and suffer through a City Council meeting," said Sandy Mayor Tom Dolan.

"Sometimes we just ask people from the audience to give an invocation," added Sandy council director Phillip Glenn. In his 15 years with the council, Glenn has never heard a complaint. "Sandy is a fairly conservative community and has always found it totally appropriate to have prayer at meetings," he said.

But feathers have been ruffled over prayers in PTA meetings.

The PTA is a private volunteer organization and does not receive tax dollars. Practically speaking, it can do whatever it wants to.

Yet Utah PTA President Colleen Taylor believes PTA chapters need to be sensitive to religious diversity in their ranks. The statewide organization, at least since 1978, has urged local boards to instead allow for a "reverence" at the beginning of meetings "to be more respectful of a variety of folks." Reverences range from a poems to uplifting thoughts to old-fashioned entreaties for God's help.

"Years ago, we started making that change so people were not offended one way or the other," Taylor said. "It's probably a good idea for (school boards), too, to be respectful of all the people they represent. I don't want to dictate that's what they should do — we just thought (a reverence) was a better way to handle it."

The Utah Constitution says that if government councils choose to pray, they must not favor one faith over others. And they can't spend public funds to recruit ministers.

When the city of Holladay incorporated last November, Mayor Liane Stillman was determined to include a variety of spiritual moments during council meetings.

"We decided we would have a reverence," she said, "and we've had Greek Orthodox, Presbyterian, Catholic and Universalist Society people, someone from the Evangelical Free Church, and four (LDS) stake presidents. We have yet to have someone from the Jewish faith, but we will."

While Stillman doesn't mind talking about her city's prayer policy, Draper Mayor Richard Alsop would rather not. After a year of struggling over how many liquor licenses to allow in the city, he said he'd rather his council wasn't drawn into another war of words.

Yes, the Draper council members pray at their meetings, and no, not all of the prayer leaders are LDS, Alsop said. Their precedent is "well set, at the federal level," he added. The U.S. Senate, after all, starts each morning session with a prayer.

E-MAIL: jtcook@desnews.com ; durbani@desnews.com