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Rolly: Politicizing prayer is counterintuitive

By PAUL ROLLY

| The Salt Lake Tribune

First Published May 09 2014 03:39 pm • Last Updated May 09 2014 03:41 pm

Salt Lake City Council Member Charlie Luke made a statement to The Salt Lake Tribune earlier this week about praying in government meetings that reminded me of one of my heroes whose principled stands more than 20 years ago put him in the cross hairs of some legislators.

Luke was asked whether the city council would take up the issue of prayers at their meetings now that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled prayers before the Greece, N.Y., Town Board are constitutional.

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The Salt Lake City Council does not open its meetings with prayer, even though the Utah Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that the practice was permissible under the Constitution.

Luke said the latest court decision likely won’t change that, but what he said after that opinion got my attention because it recalled a controversy that raged through Utah for several years and made one courageous Mormon stand out.

"Unfortunately, prayer (in meetings) has become a political issue that divides more than it tends to unify. It can alienate people and that loses the whole purpose of what prayer is in my opinion," Luke told The Tribune.

Government meeting prayer, indeed, has been used as a political prop, particularly in Utah where one faith is dominant. Luke, a practicing member of that dominant faith, uttered the sentiments of another public official whose career was threatened for saying them.

That was over the issue of prayer in public schools, particularly at graduation ceremonies, and the controversy became as divisive in the community as the same-sex marriage debate is now.

It not only divided government and school officials, as well as parents, it divided the students themselves in an arena where peer pressure can be severe.

Doug Bates was the general counsel for the State Office of Education and, as pressure was building to allow prayers at graduation ceremonies, advised the State School Board to disallow prayers at those events. Otherwise, the school boards allowing it would be sued and they would lose, he said.

Such public opining against the idea of prayer sparked the ire of some legislators who called for Bates’ resignation.


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He must be a heathen, they reasoned.

But Bates was looking at the practical side of the issue. Judicial precedent was clear that prayers at school graduations would be held unconsitutional and the school boards would spend tens of thousands of dollars on a losing cause.

The legislators didn’t care. It gave them a chance to show their righteous indignation and show their constituents they were fighting for good over evil.

The dispute inspired a classic political cartoon at the time, drawn by the Deseret News’ iconic cartoonist Calvin Grondahl.

He had then-Gov. Norm Bangerter sitting at the head of a dinner table with legislators sitting around the table and Bangerter leading them in a blessing of the food.

Bates was also at the table and was struggling to get his spoon out of a sticky bowl of porridge labeled "school prayer,"

"Daddy," said one of the legislators, "Doug isn’t closing his eyes."

Some student graduation speakers even shouted a prayer at the graduation exercises instead of their expected speech, often to hoots and hollers from the crowd.

That offended Bates who, like Luke, was a devout Mormon.

He told me that prayer is a sacred communication between an individual of faith and his or her God, and to make it into a spectacle and create a carnival-like atmosphere around it was, in his mind, sacrilegious in itself.

After I wrote about my conversation with Bates, several years after he died of cancer, I received an email from the Bingham High School graduation speaker who had done just that.

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