By Mary Rezac
After a heated debate last month, the decision to replace public prayer with a moment of silence at Phoenix City Council meetings has been reversed.
Yesterday, the city council voted 7-2 to allow the chaplains of the city’s police and fire departments to give the opening invocations at city council meetings instead of the moment of silence.
Councilman Sal Diciccio, a practicing Catholic embroiled in the debate last month over the council’s prayer practices called the reversal a “big win for Phoenix.”
“What we passed was reinstituting invocation or prayer at the city of Phoenix; we made it stronger than it ever has been in its 65 year history,” Diciccio told CNA.
Last month, a sharply divided city council voted 5-4 to adopt a moment of silence instead of prayer at the opening of council meetings. The council debated it’s prayer and invocation policies after a Satanic temple member from Tucson was scheduled to give an invocation at an upcoming meeting.
Diciccio was among four council members who voted against the moment of silence policy last month. From Diciccio’s perspective, the moment of silence was the Satanic Temple’s goal all along – they wanted all prayer to be silenced.
But when the council voted on the reversal yesterday, they voted on the beginnings of a city ordinance that would instate the chaplains as the official prayer policy of the city council.
“Normally prayer is a policy, a very casual thing,” Diciccio said. “Our motion put it into law. What we passed – we created an ordinance. I don’t think anywhere in the country this is part of the books. It makes it really hard for someone to change it again, because it will actually be part of the city of Phoenix as an ordinance.”
Before the vote yesterday, the council heard testimonies from several people from the community, including a strong showing of Hispanic pastors and Brett Harvey, who argued in the Town of Greece v. Galloway Supreme Court case to uphold the right of public bodies to allow prayer under certain parameters.
Last month, the city council heard emotional testimonies for hours on the issue. Members of the Satanic Temple in Tucson were not present for and did not provide testimony at either meeting.
“We did not let this issue go away because some politicians wanted it to go away. I want to
thank Councilmembers Waring, Nowakowski and Gates and our faith community for their pressure on the politicians to reverse this decision,” Diciccio said in a statement after yesterday’s vote.
While the 7-2 vote established the fundamentals of the ordinance, the finalized language will go before the council for a final vote on March 23.
Diciccio said that while last month he was worried that the moment of silence would start to be adopted as official policies for public bodies across the state of Arizona and even in other states across the country, he hopes that the reverse decision will have a similar impact, and that other city councils will look to Phoenix’s policy as a model.
“The fact is that this was ingrained in our traditions for 65 years, and there was really no logical reason to get rid of it, none. There just was no logic there,” he said.
“The elected officials were able to see the impact of this on the public. Bottom line I think when you take away someone’s prayer, that’s a pretty big step. I don’t think they realized the magnitude of that decision.”