Phoenix City Council members have voted to restore prayer at the beginning of their formal meetings, but the invocation will have to be given exclusively by individuals serving as chaplains for the city’s police and fire departments.
The vote comes nearly two months after the City Council decided to have a moment of silence instead of prayer as a way to prevent a group of Satanists from delivering an invocation, which they were scheduled to do at the February 17 council meeting.
The decision in early February to replace prayer with a moment of silence sparked outrage from Phoenix residents and religious leaders. They said the move was equivalent to silencing prayer and that they saw it as a victory for the Satanist group.
But on Wednesday, council members voted 6-2 to approve an ordinance that restores prayer, though it limits the delivery of it to the city’s police and fire chaplains. Councilman Sal DiCiccio, who has led the charge to keep prayer instead of adopting a moment of silence, voted in favor of the ordinance.
“Freedom of expression has turned into freedom of no religious expression,” he said moments before the vote. “That’s just not what this country has been about. Prayer has been institutionalized since before the country became a country well over 200 years ago. As a matter of fact, it’s been a tradition at the city of Phoenix for over 65 years.”
The other council members who also voted in favor were Bill Gates, Michael Nowakowski, Laura Pastor, Daniel Valenzuela and Jim Waring. Councilwoman Thelda Williams was not present.
Mayor Greg Stanton and Councilwoman Kate Gallego voted against the ordinance. Stanton said he’s worried about the impact this could have on the police and fire chiefs.
“They’re going to be placed in the very difficult position of having to pick who gets to be volunteer chaplains and who doesn’t, and potentially be subject to litigation as a result of those very difficult decisions,” Stanton said. “That’s an additional reason why I think that this was not the right approach by this council.”
Earlier this month, Phoenix council members revisited their decision to replace prayer with a moment of silence after residents filed a petition. At that meeting, they voted 7-2 in favor of a motion to instruct city staff to draft the ordinance, which they voted to approve on Wednesday.
About a dozen people spoke during Wednesday’s council meeting, some in favor and others against the ordinance. Several religious leaders thanked the council members for proposing the ordinance and urged them to vote in favor.
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But Jeremy Helfgot, commissioner for the Phoenix Commission on Human Relations, urged the council to reject the ordinance and instead continue having a moment of silence at the beginning of formal city council meetings, which he said “allows everybody to participate.”
Helfgot added that the ordinance conflicts with a section of the Phoenix City Code that states no individual within the city can restrict access to public accommodations on the basis of religion.
Any move to “prevent a specific group from delivering an invocation before this council ... is not only a violation of law, but a violation of the spirit and philosophy of this city, which has worked so hard to be inclusive,” Helfgot said.