Leading With Prayer

Councils' choice to open meetings with prayer reflection of community


At the beginning of every regular Payson Town Council and Star Valley Council meeting, a clergyman delivers a prayer -- a practice that both of the towns' mayors cherish.

Payson Mayor Bob Edwards said he thinks having the prayer delivered prior to the meeting is extremely important.

"We are a community based on the belief of God," Edwards said.

He said the nation's forefathers who created the Constitution were, for the most part, very religious people.

"For us not to respect that is wrong," he said. "Guidance of God is important to life."

The towns of Star Valley and Payson do not use the same religious denomination at every meeting, but instead will use a different one at every regular meeting.

David Kader, Arizona State University law professor, Center for the Study of Religion & Conflict, said the practice is constitutional.

The definitive issue on the subject was heard in 1983 by the U.S. Supreme Court, Marsh v. Chambers. The case involved the Nebraska Legislature's practice of opening each legislative day with a prayer by a chaplain, who was paid by the state.

The Supreme Court was asked to decide whether the practice violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment -- "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."

The Supreme Court reversed the lower courts' decisions, ruling a violation of the first amendment had not occurred.

"To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is simply not, in these circumstances, an establishment of religion or step toward establishment. It is simply a tolerable acknowledgement of beliefs widely held among the people of this country," Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote at the time.

Kader said, this landmark case is an old one, but is still the one that is relied upon.

According to the case, the practice of prayer itself is not questioned, as long as one denomination is not favored over another.

Kader said, the towns of Payson and Star Valley have the right to open council meetings with a prayer as long as they do not use the same denomination at all of their meetings.

When Edwards was elected the mayor of Payson this past March, he said he expressed and made his feelings known that they are part of a country that tolerates all religions.

Mayor Chuck Heron said the opening prayer was put in place in the newly-incorporated Star Valley because it represented the desires of residents.

"It's important to the citizens of Star Valley, and they asked for it, so I see no problem with that," he said. "This is up to each town."

He said the opening prayer is common among most towns.

"We are a Judeo-Christian nation," Heron said.

The legal gray area for governments lies in the language of each prayer.

Because the Establishment Clause requires that government does not favor one religion over another, lower courts have argued that the use of the specific names, like "Jesus Christ," in a governmental prayer are unconstitutional.

In July 2004, a court in South Carolina heard the case Wynne v. Town of Great Falls, S.C.

The court ruled that invoking the name of Jesus Christ in prayer at the beginning of council meetings violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

The court ruled that the town was advancing one religion above others.

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