The Phoenix City Council voted yesterday to replace its invocation practice with a moment of silence – but members didn’t exactly do it for noble reasons.
“Tonight the Phoenix City Council approved amending the practice related to invocations,” Julie Watters, a city spokeswoman, explained in a statement. “Effective immediately, and from this point forward, the new practice for the invocation will be a moment of silent prayer. The invocation is considered a city practice and the Council has the authority to change a city practice. At the next formal Phoenix City Council meeting on Wednesday, February 17, a moment of silent prayer will begin the meeting.”
The 5-4 vote appears to have been a response to a request from the Satanic Temple. A local representative of that group had applied to deliver an invocation at one of the council’s public meetings. That didn’t go over well with some councilors and with certain members of the public. At a heated public meeting, several citizens opposed the Satanic Temple’s presence, and some cited the Bible to justify their position.
“There are worse things to fear than a lawsuit. There is a Satan who wants to destroy us,” said a local man.
Local television stations KPHO and KTVK reported that the city’s attorneys warned councilors that banning a specific viewpoint opened the door to a legal case they’d likely lose. As per Greece v. Galloway, government bodies that open with invocations may be required to allow representatives from all faiths and none deliver the messages.
But according to city attorney Brad Holm, Phoenix may not have avoided a lawsuit after all. The Satanic Temple’s representative had already been scheduled to deliver her invocation. Since councilors adopted their new policy to block her invocation, she may have a case.
“The Council could change the schedule of speakers in prayer…in the future,” Holm said. “What we couldn’t do is apply it retroactively, in this case, to a person who already booked the prayer for Feb. 17 back in December.”
The Satanic Temple member, Michelle Shortt, has already indicated she’ll sue. “Our goal is to promote religious liberty within our state by demonstrating that all faiths are respected by the government of Arizona,” she wrote on her public Facebook page.
And Holm is correct: Shortt very likely has a point. It’s constitutional for city councils to choose to implement a moment of silence as an alternative to invocations. From a certain legal perspective, it’s actually preferable that they do so. But Phoenix may have wandered into unsteady legal ground when it acted to block Shortt specifically from its invocation practice.
It doesn’t matter, legally, if Phoenix residents and some city council members are offended by Shortt’s membership in the Satanic Temple. The First Amendment applies to all faiths and none, and if public officials wish to welcome God into their meetings they must also welcome the devil.
The wisest course of action would be for the city council to allow Shortt to deliver her invocation as scheduled, then shift to its new practice. It remains unclear if they intend to do so.