How Satanic Temple drove Phoenix City Council to drop opening prayers

The decision may have helped the city avoid a lawsuit over constitutional rights. But it has drawn the ire of some who say that offering a moment of silence instead is equivalent to banning prayer.

Jonathan Bachman/AP
Chris Bridges holds a sign for The Satanic Temple during a protest outside of an all-day prayer rally headlined by Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal in Baton Rouge, Jan. 24. The Phoenix City Council council on Wednesday introduced a measure to replace opening prayers with a moment of silence in effort to prevent a group that uses Satan in its name to present the opening prayer during a future council meeting.

The Phoenix City Council will no longer be offering prayers before its meetings.

On Wednesday, the Council voted that the moment of prayer traditionally offered before a meeting will be replaced with a moment of silence.

The move was intended to block a Phoenix-based group that calls itself the Satanic Temple from offering a prayer at the City Council’s next official meeting, on Feb. 17th.

Critics of the Temple, which promotes religious agnosticism, say that the vote marks a win for the group. “This is what that Satanist group wants,” Councilman Sal DiCiccio told The Phoenix News-Times. “A moment of silence is basically a banning of prayer.”

The option of silent prayer was offered as an alternative to a measure that would have let Phoenix’s mayor and councilors to take turns selecting who gives the invocation. That measure would not have prevented the Satanic Temple from giving their prayer on Feb. 17th.

In the past, the Supreme Court has upheld the right of one town in upstate New York's right to begin town meetings with prayer. Town governments are not allowed to control the content of those prayers, so long as the language in them does not include proselytizing or wording that denigrates other faiths. A similar case regarding prayer in North Carolina is currently before the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.

The Satanic Temple, based in Tucson, does not worship any deities, Satan included. The official Church of Satan, which was founded by Anton LaVey in 1966, also does not espouse any kind of active faith or worship, although it does embrace the practice of rituals.

One member of the temple told the Associated Press that the council’s decision for a moment of silence is a win-win for everyone. "I encourage any Satanist to go have their moment of silence [like] anyone else," Stuart de Haan, a lawyer from Tucson, said.

Councilwoman Thelda Williams, who offered the alternate motion, later said she didn’t think Phoenix should waste money on a lawsuit over constitutional rights that it was sure to lose.

But Councilman Diciccio said he would take the issue to voters.

"What is going to happen is: There's no other compromise," Councilman Michael Nowakowski said. "We're ending prayer. To me, that's wrong."

This report includes material from the Associated Press.

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