The U.S. Supreme Court ruling that local governments have broad discretion in opening meetings with prayer likely won’t have dramatic impact on city councils in Utah, which currently take a variety of approaches — from invocations to moments of silence to skipping prayer altogether.
Released Monday, the 5-4 decision found prayers were constitutional so long as they didn’t attempt to proselytize or criticize those of other faiths, or nonbelievers. The justices said the prayers could not involve coercion, but they did not spell out a requirement that local governments attempt to ensure diversity in the religious expression communicated.
The constitutionality of prayer in city council meetings was upheld in Utah in a 1993 ruling by the state Supreme Court.
But the Utah court set up a standard of “neutrality” aimed at ensuring that any faith, or group of non-believers, be given equal opportunity to express its views.
“Lutherans or Latter-day Saints who wish to use [government] facilities must have access on exactly the same terms as the Loyal Order of the Moose, the American Atheist Society, or the Libertarian Party,” then-Utah Chief Justice Michael Zimmerman wrote for the majority in the 4-1 opinion.
Coercion • That strict adherence to neutrality is absent from the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which rejected the notion that a lack of diversity in the mostly Christian prayers of the Greece, N.Y., Town Council constituted an illegal government endorsement of prayer.
“The showing [of coercion or proselytizing] has not been made here, where the prayers neither chastised dissenters nor attempted lengthy disquisition on religious dogma,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the majority opinion. “In the general course, legislative bodies do not engage in impermissible coercion merely by exposing constituents to prayer they would rather not hear and in which they need not participate.”
One remedy for those not wishing exposure, he suggested, was for them to leave the room. He also reasoned that because the prayers took place in a ceremonial opening part of the meeting, those stepping out would not miss out on the policy making actions of the government body.
A sampling of city councils by The Tribune last summer found wide diversity in the ways local governments handle the prayer issue.
Salt Lake City does not open its council meetings with any kind of prayer or moment of silence.
St. George, Provo, South Jordan and Bluffdale all opened with invocations. On the other hand, Bountiful, Draper, Heber City, Syracuse, Vernal and Taylorsville opened with an invocation, “thought,” “comments,” “uplifting thought,” or “reverence.” Ogden City began its council meetings with a moment of silence.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there isn’t any change at all” in the wake of the ruling, said Kenneth Bullock, Utah League of Cities and Towns executive director.
“There’re options and it’s somewhat predicated on where each individual community is at — their preference,” said Bullock. “I think there’s a growing sensitivity to the diversity of our communities and the need for inclusion of all different types of faiths.”
Utah court fight • It was a lawsuit against Salt Lake City’s practice of opening council meetings with prayer that took the issue to the Utah Supreme Court a generation ago. But the council did not keep up the practice following its victory in the state high court.
Salt Lake City Council Chairman Charlie Luke says he has no plans to bring up the issue now as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
“Unfortunately, prayer [in government meetings] has become a political issue that divides more than it tends to unify,” Luke said. “It can alienate people and that loses the whole purpose of what prayer is in my opinion.”
He said the city’s policy is largely aimed at making sure that city residents “don’t feel excluded or put in a situation where they’re uncomfortable. It’s difficult enough to get people to participate in the public process.”
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which claims membership of about 60 percent of the residents of Utah, hailed the court ruling.
“We applaud the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the long-standing practice of prayer within government meetings,” spokesman Cody Craynor said in a statement. “We believe the ruling upholds the rich American tradition of religious participation in the public square.”
Beacon or warning light? • Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also praised the court decision as a victory for religious liberty.
“America’s heritage of religious freedom, including the freedom offered citizens to pray in a public setting, is one of the things that makes our country the beacon of freedom that it is,” Hatch said in a statement.
The wide variety of approaches by Utah cities now probably won’t change as a result of Monday’s Supreme Court ruling, predicted Sarah Davidson, vice president of the Utah Atheists of Utah.
“I hope not,” she added.
If they do open with an invocation, “they don’t have to stop now but I certainly hope this doesn’t cause anyone to start using prayer” to open meetings, she said.
She said from a legal standpoint, it’s probably best that councils stay away from prayer in public meetings. “It’s when a prayer is invoking a higher power that issues really start to pile up,” she said. “It becomes very easy to step into that coercive side.”
“My only guideline is not only to be inclusive of religions but those who are not religious as well, so every person can believe in whom or what they want and also not believe.”
Or, Davidson added, city councils could “just open with a joke.”