June 2016 Church & State - June 2016

Ariz. Town Grapples With Prayer Policy After Complaints

  AU admin

Officials in an Arizona town have decided to change the community’s invocation policy after Americans United raised the possibility of a lawsuit.

Members of the Chino Valley Town Council had been in the habit of reciting mostly Christian prayers out loud before meetings. The new policy, approved unanimously, calls for them to pray together before meetings out of public view after some members of the community complained.

“This has been a long process, this wasn’t done as a knee-jerk reaction,” Mayor Chris Marley said during the meeting, according to the Chino Valley Review. “Although legal costs are a factor, they are not the deciding factor, since we cannot put a price on our Constitution.”

Marley’s tone represented a drastic shift from his bluster in February that the council would not stop opening its meetings with predominantly Christian prayers delivered by council members. The Review noted that six of the seven council members are Christian and more than 80 percent of official council invocations in the last two years have concluded with the words “in Jesus’ name” or something similar.

Not everyone in the community, however, was comfortable with that practice. In December, Sherry Brown of the Chino Valley Unified School District Governing Board urged the council to consider the fact that some in the area might be offended by sponsored prayers that invoke Jesus.

Then in February, the issue got more contentious. Rabbi Adele Plot­kin of the Beit Torah Jewish Congregation in Chino Valley criticized the prayer practice to the media ahead of her attendance at a Feb. 9 meeting. Marley had said there would be no official prayer at that meeting, but with Plotkin in attendance he changed his mind – leading to protests. Plotkin was subsequently removed from that meeting for allegedly causing a disturbance.

In March, Americans United sent a letter to the city council advising it to change its policy in favor of a moment of silence.

“The divisiveness of your prayer practice is only emphasized by the fact that the Council recently removed from its chambers a citizen of another faith who vociferously objected to a prayer,” read the letter. “A moment of silence is a far better choice, as it allows all citizens and Council members to pray to themselves (or not), as their conscience dictates, without offending anyone.”    

Ultimately, Marley and his allies backed down from their constitutionally dubious practice. But they didn’t sound happy about their decision.

“I just feel like it’s a sad day when we have to make decisions based on monetary reasons,” said Council­member Lon Turner. “I have really disliked the idea that this small community has been infringed upon….”    

It’s unclear if the new policy will stay in effect, however. Daniel Barr, a media lawyer for the Arizona Newspapers Association, told the Review that a pre-meeting gathering might be a form of executive session. Executive sessions can only be called for specific reasons, and convening one to pray might violate the state’s open-meeting law. 

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