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Prayer policy is reviewed

But South S.L. Council finds resolution is just fine, thanks

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If a city official won't answer your e-mail, try mentioning prayer in your message.

That's what Bob Gray did when he e-mailed his fellow South Salt Lake City Council members.

"I was buried" with responses, said Gray.

Gray's message cautioned the council about how they say prayers at their public meetings and noted that members may have fallen out of compliance with their official policy.

We have this resolution, signed in 1998, Gray wrote. It states that praying at meetings is fine. The resolution also says we're to take turns scheduling people to lead prayers, reflections, invocations, whatever we choose to call them.

Gray, in an interview before Wednesday night's council meeting, said, "Everybody got complacent with it. When it came their turn, they fell into the same old pattern. Each council member would pray," instead of calling on a minister or a citizen in the audience.

Governments need to come back into compliance with the resolution, which is based on Utah Supreme Court rulings, Gray said. Praying at public meetings is legal, the court has stated, as long as officials don't favor one faith over others and as long as the prayer is "nondiscriminatory and accessible to all."

At Wednesday's work meeting, Councilman Bill Anderson said more of an effort could be made to provide equal time to various denominations. "I do think we need to extend ourselves," he said.

Other council members didn't think anything needed changing. Members of the council, which Gray said is predominantly LDS, sent a few strong replies to his e-mails, including words to the effect of "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" and "This is our meeting, and no one's going to tell us what to do."

Councilman Boyd Marshall said during the meeting that if he were to "solicit professional clergy, that would muddy the waters even worse." Calling around town for ministers hasn't worked too well, added Mayor Randy Fitts. He said he's tried to bring in a variety of local pastors, but they're often busy and can't make it to council meetings. Instead of spending a lot of time on the phone, Fitts said, it's simpler to have the council members offer a prayer — or just call for a moment of silence at the start of a meeting.

The other option, asking a member of the audience to say a prayer, didn't seem right to Marshall. Calling on people at random will startle them, he said. To make his point, Marshall asked a reporter if she would offer the prayer at Wednesday's council meeting.

"OK, now we're in compliance" with the resolution, the councilman said to the reporter. "I don't know what religion you are, and I don't care."

No matter how we word our resolution, someone will find fault with it, added Councilman Doug Moffat. "We can try to tweak it to perfection," he said, but there will always be someone who says it's not quite right.

The Salt Lake City Council stopped praying years ago, and Mayor Rocky Anderson has said that public prayers are "divisive." So why pray at all during council meetings?

"Why not? This country was founded on prayer," said Marshall.

After about 15 minutes of discussion Wednesday evening, the council decided to keep its prayer policy as is. Marshall said he didn't mean to be adversarial. And Fitts said he's not terribly worried about who prays to which deity, since, "We just need any help we can get."

A July 19 Deseret News article pictured Fitts at a council meeting, his head bowed in prayer. Now "people call me the prayin' mayor," he said.

E-MAIL: durbani@desnews.com