November 2015 Church & State | Featured

Rob Hudelson, a member of the Coolidge, Ariz., City Council, has strong opinions about the role of Chris­tianity in government.

“I think it’s very important,” Hudelson said during a September council meeting. “We just proclaimed Constitution Week. You know what was said at the end of the [Revolutionary] War? A treaty in Paris that said, ‘In the name of the most holy and undivided Trinity.’ You don’t get that from the Quran. You get it from the Bible. You get it from Christianity. That’s our heritage.”

Hudelson made the comments in response to a suggestion that the city council vote to allow prayers before its meetings – but only if they are Christian.

The proposal to allow prayer at council meetings had originally been written to allow any faith leader within city limits to offer an invocation, reported the Coolidge Examiner. It looked like the proposal would pass easily until Hudelson spoke up. Following his comments, he moved to amend the motion to state that only Christian prayer would be permitted.

At this point, City Attorney Denis Fitzgibbons jumped in, warning the council that such a policy wouldn’t likely survive scrutiny before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Mayor Jon Thompson warned that the policy could cause the city to be sued.

“I’m not going to get the taxpayers sued,” Thompson said. “If I had a problem with what was being said during the prayer, I wouldn’t pay attention….We’re going to knowingly become involved in litigation that we cannot afford.”

At that point, the Examiner reported, council member Steve Hudson singled out Fitzgibbons and remarked, “That’s why we pay him – to avoid us getting into these problems.”

To this Fitzgibbons replied, “Oh, you’ll get into this problem.”

Undaunted, council members voted 4-2 to amend the prayer policy. One member, Gary Lewis, made it clear that he had no intention of even listening to non-Christian invocations.

“Under my faith, I wouldn’t sit here and listen to it. I would walk away,” Lewis said.

The vote sparked an immediate reaction, and suddenly the town of about 12,000 residents found itself in the national spotlight thanks to a social media storm.

The council’s action also attracted the attention of Americans United.

In a Sept. 18 letter to Mayor Thompson and the members of the council, AU attorneys pointed out that the Supreme Court in 2014 ruled in Town of Greece v. Galloway that communities may open their deliberations with prayers but that nothing in that rulings suggests that a “Christians-only” prayer policy is acceptable.

“It [the policy] would discriminate against non-Christians, lead the City to prescribe and censor the prayers’ content, and exploit the prayer opportunity to advance Christianity and Christianity alone,” the letter stated.

It added, “In order to comply with the First Amendment and respect the religious diversity of Coolidge’s citizens, the City should rescind its Christian-only policy and replace it with a policy that invites invocation speakers on equal terms.”

Americans United Executive Director Barry W. Lynn asserted in a press statement that the council was on the wrong road.

“Elected officials can’t use government meetings as an excuse to proselytize,” said Lynn. “If council members want to have prayers, they’re legally obligated to make sure that the privilege of giving them is available to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation.”

The “Christians-only” proposal divided the town, and one council member reported that his email reflected a 50-50 split over the matter. Much of the battle waged on social media, where people who don’t live in Coolidge argued over the policy.

In mid-September, a couple from the nearby city of Casa Grande marched in front of city hall waving signs reading, “All Deserve Hell” and “Yahshua Loves Obedience.”

The couple, Jay and Dorothy Johnson, called themselves “servants of Yahshua” and said they had come to support Hudelson.

“We believe that prayer should be limited to the true god,” Jay Johnson told the Examiner. “When you have prayer in just a general Christian manner, you’re going to bring in all sorts of false religions. A lot of people call themselves Christians, but they’re not Christians. The Roman Catholic rape machine, where they rape little boys, girls or nuns – that’s not Christian, is it? The Mormons teach about false gods, and they call themselves Christians.”

Council members, however, must have realized that the threat of litigation was serious, and they had no desire to wade into a legal battle. On Sept. 21, council members huddled in an executive session where they reportedly reviewed the law. When they emerged, members voted unanimously to go back to the original policy and allow prayers from a variety of traditions.

Although Hudelson supported the change, he made it clear that he was not happy about it.

“What is to be said about a nation that protects immorality and excoriates a city council because they do not want to allow a prayer to Satan to open their meetings?” he said. “History will look back on us and say there was a city council who stood for Christ and Christ alone. For that, we should never be ashamed.”

Gilbert Lopez, who was one of two council members who originally opposed the “Christians-only” policy, had a different take.

“We’re made up of a lot of different faiths of people,” Lopez said. “We are up here for the whole community, and I want to make sure we stay that way in the future.”

A local religious leader also said he supports diversity. Pastor Byron Sanders of Fairhaven Baptist Church drafted the original resolution for the council. Sanders told the Examiner that he felt “blindsided” when council members altered the policy and limited it to Christians.

“I feel that the city council is not a pulpit,” Sanders said. “We’d like the council to represent us and the diversity within Coolidge. Opening it up would embrace that diversity and make everyone happy.”

Thompson concurred. The Examiner reported that at the end of the meeting, the mayor thanked everyone for seeking a resolution to the controversy, remarking, “I think all of us feel the same way, that we want to move Coolidge forward.”

The flap in Coolidge is far from isolated. Across the country, communities are grappling with how to implement the high court’s Greece ruling. While few have gone so far as to impose “Christians-only” prayer, some minority religious or secular groups have been excluded.

In Lincoln County, N.C., a commissioner tried to block opening prayers by Muslims and walked out of a meeting when a representative from a local Islamic group was invited to give an invocation.

Secular groups are also being excluded in some communities. Officials in Brevard County, Fla., have adopted an invocation policy that excludes non-religious people. Americans Uni­ted and allied groups are challenging the policy in federal court. (See “Atheists Excluded,” September 2015 Church & State.)

One case is pending before a federal appeals court. The Jackson County, Mich., Board of Commissioners has a practice of allowing its members to deliver prayers before meetings. Since all of the commissioners are Christians, the prayers are too. To make things worse, commissioners have a habit of urging people attending the meetings to participate. The case, Bormuth v. County of Jackson, is pending before the 6th  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, and AU recently filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case.

Attorneys at Americans United, which litigated the Greece case, knew there would be fallout from that decision. The 5-4 ruling left too many questions unanswered. Although AU would prefer that there be no official, government-sponsored prayers at council meetings, the Supreme Court’s decision allows invocations but does state that reasonable efforts at diversity should be made.

In the wake of the Greece ruling, Americans United launched a project called Operation Inclusion, which is designed to ensure that local communities are as inclusive as possible when it comes to official invocations. AU is monitoring the situation nationwide and responds with legal letters when communities adopt policies that seem to be problematic.

The situation in Coolidge was resolved quickly thanks to outside pressure, but AU knows that not all bouts over legislative prayer can be wrapped up so promptly or so favorably.

Far from being the definitive word on municipal prayer, the Greece ruling appears to have sparked a new round of litigation. As the situation in Coolidge proves, the issue remains as controversial as ever.