Town council to discontinue prayers after FFRF protest

Thanks to efforts by local activists and national freethought groups, the Chino Valley Town Council in Arizona voted unanimously Tuesday to drop prayers from governmental meetings.

The Freedom From Religion was the first group to intervene after local activists’ protests made news. FFRF Legal Fellow Madeline Ziegler wrote letters on Jan. 14 and Feb. 10 objecting to the practice.

Last December, a local resident expressed dismay about the councilor-delivered invocations always ending “in Jesus’ name.” In response to the complaint, Councilmember Lon Turner on Jan. 8 publicly declared he would continue to pray in Jesus’ name, claiming that the citizen’s request was an attempt to “tread on” his religion and “freedom of expression.”

“It is coercive, embarrassing, and intimidating for nonreligious citizens to either make a public showing of their nonbelief by defying the Mayor’s call to stand and participate, or else to display deference toward a religious sentiment in which they do not believe,” Ziegler pointed out in her January letter.

Although originally promising there would be no invocation while controversy was discussed, Mayor Chris Marley at the following meeting personally conducted the invocation, reading a “disclaimer” that the prayer was his “personal belief.” Local Rabbi Adele Plotkin, who had attended the meeting on the understanding that there would be no Christian prayer, audibly protested and was removed from the council chambers. The council decided not to change its practice, with Marley declaring the lack of action was “drawing a line in the sand in defense of freedom of religion and free expression.”

Ziegler sent another letter after these antics: “It is alarming that the members of the Chino Valley Town Council do not understand that you are acting as the government at Town Council meetings, and not as private individuals. Town Council members, sitting in the Council chambers at a Town Council meeting, are not private citizens with the right to free exercise of religion. Instead, you are representatives of Chino Valley, Arizona, which has a constitutional duty to remain neutral on religious matters.”

Letters from the ACLU and Americans United for Church and State followed.

An attorney for the town wrote to FFRF on Feb. 29, saying, “In light of your letter and letters from other interested groups, the Council is reconsidering the practice and continuing discussions regarding its future invocation policies.” At its April 12 meeting, the council voted to have invocations in private (although not before performing one last public invocation.)

Turner reportedly expressed regret at having “to make decisions based on monetary reasons,” and the “small community” being “infringed upon” by “the likes of the ACLU, Freedom From Religion.” Vice-Mayor Darryl Croft asked “How do we as a council try to make, and allow, these meetings to be for everyone? I think we have to do that, unfortunately, that hurts.”

Other councilors were more gracious. Susan Cuka acknowledged that some people had been alienated by the prayers and criticized for their religions, noting, “They don’t appreciate the fact that government officials that are in charge of making decisions for a community may specify a specific religion and therefore make them feel uncomfortable.”

Marley said he was affected by “an individual coming before council with a request, who was from a different culture and from a different religious background, and to see a member of this legislative body lead the invocation, would give the impression, now not necessarily a reality, but it would give the impression, or the appearance, that the local government was endorsing a specific religion.”

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor hailed the change. “As this situation showed, religion in government is innately divisive. It invariably leads to majority believers being treated as insiders, and minorities and nonbelievers as outsiders. We thank the Chino Valley Town Council for doing the right thing, and very much appreciate their thoughtful debate to keep meetings inclusive and welcoming to all citizens.”

FFRF is the nation’s largest organization of freethinkers with more than 23,500 members, including over 500 members and a chapter in Arizona.

Note: This matter is not to be confused with FFRF’s federal lawsuit in Chino Valley, Calif., challenging sectarian prayers before school board meetings there. FFRF has won round one in that case.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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