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"I feel the City Council is not a pulpit."
An Arizona pastor who spearheaded an effort to bring prayer back to city council meetings is unhappy with officials' controversial decision to potentially make invocations "Christian-only."
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Pastor Byron Sanders of Fairhaven Baptist Church in Coolidge, Arizona, is speaking out after a city council vote was held on Monday that embraced the notion of public prayer, but with the caveat that it be sectarian — and Christian — in nature.
"I was blindsided by the whole thing, really. I wanted this to get involvement from the community, to have the churches in the community be represented," Sanders told the Casa Grande Dispatch. "I feel the City Council is not a pulpit."
The pastor said that his initial effort was undertaken to create unity by allowing every faith to take part in prayer before council meetings, but fears that the controversial "Christian-only" decision could endanger that prospect.
Prayer was once a part of Coolidge City Council meetings from 1996 to 2007, but the practice was reportedly halted due to a lack of interest and involvement from the community, reported the Casa Grande Dispatch.
Sanders had hoped that bringing invocations back for all faiths would strengthen the community by letting people know what's happening on the council, explaining that he doesn't believe that the "Christian-only" stipulation will stick.
"It would get people represented in front of the council," he said. "If something were to happen in the community, everyone would know who to talk to if they need help."
As previously reported, the city council voted on Monday night to amend its regulations to permit only Christian invocations, with members voting 4-2 in favor of the change, the Associated Press reported.
The proposed amendment to Sanders' prayer recommendation came from councilman Robert Hudelson, who said that the U.S. is a Christian nation and that prayers should reflect that historical fact and sentiment.
“That’s our heritage, we should not be ashamed of it, nor should we be pushed into a corner because [of] Supreme Court decisions,” Hudelson said, according to KSAZ-TV. “The first prayer in Congress ended by saying thy son, our savior, based on the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior Amen.”
But two others — council member Gilbert Lopez and Mayor Jon Thompson — opposed the measure, with Thompson citing legal concerns.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona has also spoken out against the proposal, claiming that it sends a poor message to people of minority faiths who live in Coolidge.
“We are of the opinion it would violate the Constitution and send a really bad message to folks that live in the town of Coolidge that, if they’re not Christian, then they are excluded from participating in government affairs,” Victoria Lopez, the group’s legal director, told the Associated Press. ”This is a striking take on this issue, one that you think we wouldn’t see in 2015.”
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City Attorney Denis Fitzgibbons, who warned that exclusively Christian prayers could be problematic, will draft a proposal that takes the council’s wishes into account, and bring it back for their final consideration.
The Supreme Court delivered a 5-4 decision in Greece vs. Galloway last year, ruling that prayers at public meetings are constitutional so long as government officials make an effort to be inclusive of all faiths, though CNN reported at the time that the ruling was specific to Greece and gave little guidance to other communities grappling with similar issues.
(H/T: Casa Grande Dispatch)
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