Sunday, February 14, 2016

Favoring non-religion over religion?

Earlier in February, the City Council of Phoenix voted to change the meetings' opening ceremony. The meetings, which used to be opened with a prayer, are now opened with a moment of silence. This change was fueled by the intentions of a Satanistic group to lead the opening prayer. The Satanists were scheduled to lead prayer on February 17th. Any religious group was allowed to lead the opening prayer if they asked the council to do so. Some members of the Council, including Sal DiCicco, looked to stop the Satanists from leading prayer because they believed that this would not be a good image for the city. The issue was brought to court and passed with an emergency clause which allows the law to be effective within 24 hours. This prevented the Satanists from going forward with leading the prayer.

DiCicco voiced his opinion stating that "it's a dumb idea, we do not have to legally do this, and they're not a recognized religion". He wanted to change the rule so that the prayers had to be pre-approved in order to be said at council meetings. However, it was recommended by Councilwoman Thelda Williams to go with an "all or nothing" approach in order to avoid issues of constitutionality. The alternative was getting rid of prayer all together. Now groups are free to lead the invocation with a moment of silence but they are no longer permitted to vocalize the ideals of their religion through prayer. Members of this Satanistic group are disappointed with the council's decision because all they wanted to do was participate in the same way as so many other religious groups have. The group does not believe in any religious figure and is therefore an atheistic group that sees satan as a metaphor for religious tyranny. They wanted to deliver a two minute prayer that encompassed their beliefs in a very non-coercive way.

There is a lot of controversy among religious leaders regarding this new rule. Over 50 different people, including many religious leaders, gathered to discuss this change in an emotionally charged conversation that cited references including scripture and the U.S. Constitution. Pastor Darlene Vazquez was extremely disappointed with the change saying that, "I want those who believe in one true God to pray. It breaks my heart to hear what is going on". However, the council ensures that this change is in everyone's best interest and is fair to all.

A past Supreme Court Case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, decided that in New York it is not unconstitutional to open legislative sessions in prayer as long as they are not discriminatory against minority religions. But can this situation in Phoenix not be seen as discrimination against minority religious groups? There has never been an issue with the opening prayer until this minority group of Satanists decided to embrace the same opportunity as other religious groups.

Does the council's decision to change a long-standing tradition in order to prevent the prayers of Satanists go against the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment? The clause states that not only can no one religion be favored over another, but there can also be no discrimination between religion and non-religion. In the case of the City Council of Phoenix, religion is being discriminated against and non-religion is being favored. Just because Satanists are a minority religion and their beliefs are not generally accepted and practiced, should they be denied the same opportunities as other, less controversial religions?

8 comments:

Maddie G said...

I think that if the prayer was abandoned in favor of a moment of silence specifically in response to the Satanist's request to lead the prayer then, yes, this is an unconstitutional establishment. It is not the place of the municipality to choose what is and is not a religion or to choose which religions should get preferential treatment. They may not like the views of the Satanists but unfortunately they have to treat them the same as any other religion that has requested the opportunity to lead the prayer.

Caroline S. said...

I agree with Maddie's comment above. The legislative change is a reaction to the Satanist's petition to participate in the opening prayer ceremony of the council. Although the clause is now an "all or nothing clause" it was clearly written to target one specific minority group, with whom the council did not agree. This demonstrates how difficult it is to prevent minority religions from being persecuted even with the First Amendment in place. The moment of silence appears "neutral" however it was intentionally changed to prevent the Satanists from participating. This change should be declared unconstitutional because it is "establishing" the myriad of other religions who were permitted to lead the opening prayer over this Satanic group.

Kaily G said...

I am in full agreement with the comments above and the unconstitutionality of the ruling. To push this issue further I am interested in this idea of “all or nothing.” Is the ruling to open the City Council of Phoenix meetings with a silent prayer really nothing? I feel as though this decision in a way parallels with the Engel v. Vitale case. Engel v. Vitale concluded that to begin each day with a state authorized prayer was unconstitutional based on the fact that the government should not determine how people choose to pray and worship. Thus, this begs the question as to whether having people pray in silence can be regarded as the governments direction on how people should pray and worship. To that end, if the council plans on doing “nothing” then shouldn’t they do just that?

Alex Puleo said...

I agree, I do not believe the premises for this ruling is constitutional. In addition, I do not agree with Mr. DiCicco's comments presented above. First and foremost, while Satanic religion may be seen as one of the "scarier" religions, does not mean it is not a religion, which is recognized by the public. In addition, passing a regulation to ban the opening prayer due to the fact that committee heads wished to inhibit the Satanist's ability to lead the opening prayer does not display proper neutrality for religion. It is unconstitutional to give, as Mr. DiCicco would say, "recognized" religions preferential treatment over those which are not "recognized" by the public. However, I do believe, over all, that replacing the prayer with a moment of silence is more neutral, due to the fact that specific religious groups are given the opportunity to express what they desire without being told that they may not do so.

Natalie K. said...

I agree with the previous comments. I think that the council’s decision to change this tradition solely to prevent Satanist prayers from being delivered during the meetings’ opening ceremony is unconstitutional. This ruling does not treat religions neutrally; rather, it does the complete opposite of that. Furthermore, I think that DiCicco’s claim that since Satanism is not a “recognized” religion, allowing the Satanists to open the ceremony with their prayer is inappropriate is groundless. This leads us to question, who has the authority to define religion? Although it is necessary for the government to determine what constitutes a religion in order to ensure the separation of church and state, it must do so cautiously to prevent favoring one religion over another.

Sedona Boyatzis said...

I agree with the comments stated above. The fact that there was no issue with commencing prayer at the start of the meetings prior to this Satanic group alludes to the fact that religion is being favored and non-religion, in this case, is being discriminated against. A moment of silence is no longer a prayer and does not apply to any religions, and can therefore be seen as neutral. But this situation is not neutral because Satanism was not addressed neutrally, rather with the notion that all prayer in general should be inhibited. This only arose because many religions have virtually opposite beliefs of that of Satanism, but Satanism is also still a belief. It is difficult to address, of course, but should not have been discriminated against and should have been dealt with as though it was a widely accepted religion as all others involved are.

Caroline Vauzelle said...

I think the main problem with this case is that is shows that interpretations of the First Amendment in modern days America are most of the time not so neutral. The way people who are outside of the Satanic Temple talk about it is always discriminatory in itself, and your article gives good examples of that (“not be a good image for the city”, “they're not a recognized religion”, “The group does not believe in any religious figure and is therefore an atheistic group that sees satan as a metaphor for religious tyranny.”, “I want those who believe in one true God”). However, the Satanic Temple does have the legal statute of a religion. The likeability or the credibility of their faith is not for the government to decide on. The fact has to be underlined that it is unconstitutional to question their beliefs, for we saw in almost every Court case we studied so far that the First Amendment is rightly and undoubtedly made to protect beliefs. A point that is missing in your article and that could have been interesting is that Christians are supposed to fight evil, and thus one could potentially argue that it is part of the free exercise of their religion to fight against the propagation of Satanism...

Kiriko Masek said...

I agree with many of the previous comments that yes, if the recitation of an opening prayer was discontinued solely to prevent a Satanist group from presenting their prayer, then the decision was unconstitutional. This case presents the issue of where we draw the line of what constitutes as religion. In the article it said that people were doubting whether or not the Satanist group was a religion and therefore they should not be allowed to say a prayer because they are not technically a religious group. However, who is to decide whether or not this Satanist group is indeed a religion? Just because their group seems to offend a certain majority of religions does not immediately deem it to not be a religion. This is clearly a case of discrimination against a religious minority.