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The U.S. Supreme Court recently considered prayer before government meetings, and its decision may affect how Chandler and other cities handle the issue.
Chandler has a longstanding tradition of an invocation before every City Council meeting and study session.
The City Clerk’s Office has a list of local clergy who offer the invocation on an unofficial rotation, City Clerk Marla Paddock said.
“We don’t necessarily do a huge outreach,” but anyone who is interested is welcome to contact the city, Paddock said.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that prayer before government meetings is permissible, but left the specifics open to some interpretation, said Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum.
It is unclear if legislative prayer was upheld because in the particular case it did not promote a particular religion or because in that case the prayer was non-sectarian, Haynes said.
“This case raises the question of whether it’s also OK if you don’t remain with an all-purpose, non-denominational prayer,” said Paul Bender, professor of law at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law.
“It’s going to be a very important case for what cities can do.”
The Supreme Court agreed in May to take a case involving Greece, N.Y. after a lower court ruled that because the prayers before its meetings were mostly Christian that the town was, in effect, promoting one religion over another.
“I suspect it will clarify the rules of the game,” Haynes said of the Supreme Court’s consideration of the case.“I think it will probably be easier for government bodies to have these prayers without fear of litigation.”
A Republic review of Chandler City Council meeting minutes shows that about 83 percent of the invocations given since 2011 have represented a variety of Christian denominations. That includes the times Council member Kevin Hartke, senior pastor at Trinity Christian Fellowship, filled in and gave the invocation.
Christian churches represent about 73 percent of the places of worship in the city, according to an unofficial list posted on the city’s website.
The remainder of the invocations were presented by representatives of the Baha’i faith (11 percent) and by a a Rabbi (4 percent),and one invocation each given by Paddock and Councilwoman Trinity Donovan, CEO of the Chandler Christian Community Center.
Council members who spoke with the Republic said they support prayer before meetings and touted the diversity of the invocations offered.
“We’ve had a pretty good cross section that’s representative of the city,” Councilman Rick Heumann said.
Chandler’s system is not discriminatory nor preferential, Hartke said.
Councilwoman Nora Ellen said that praying before the council begins to make its decisions is important.
“In my opinion, if anywhere needs prayer, it’s government,” she said.
And while Ellen stopped short of saying the invocations should be only Christian, she said that is what she is most comfortable with.
“When we first started praying in this country it was to the Christian God and I feel like our nation became great because of that,” she said.“I would like prayer to continue that way.”
The diversity of the community is a strength, and Chandler strives to show that it is inclusive, said Councilman Jack Sellers, adding that he has not received any complaints from residents about the invocation.
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