Legislative Prayer in Arizona

by Beth Houck, Secular AZ Legal Committee volunteer attorney

This summer, Secular AZ’s Legal Committee has been reviewing the invocation policies and practices in every county’s board of supervisors’ meetings, and in the city council meetings of the cities that are county seats. It’s a big project, requiring many public records requests and listening to hundreds of hundreds of recordings going back to the beginning of 2020.

The outcome of this research will be 1) the creation of a document which we will send across the state giving guidelines and best practices for the use of prayer in government meetings, and 2) letters sent to the places with the most egregious practices than run afoul of the First Amendment.

Legislative prayer is in a category by itself, as far as legal analysis goes. By today’s standards, it would be seen as a violation of the Establishment Clause, a government endorsement of religion. However, it was already a common practice at the time the Bill of Rights was adopted and continued long after that. Thus, the Supreme Court has concluded, it was not considered a violation at the time and has a long been a tradition in our country, which makes it acceptable. Still, government bodies must follow some guidelines in their practices. There aren’t precise rules; the court looks at different aspects of it ⁠— e.g. who is giving it, during what part of the meeting, is the policy fair to all religions in the jurisdiction, is there any attempt to proselytize, is one religion favored over others, does it denigrate other religions or nonbelievers – and decides if the overall effect of the practice strays outside these guidelines.

The appropriate purposes of legislative prayer are to solemnize the occasion; to ask for divine guidance for the lawmakers in working together to accomplish their business; to bear in mind nondenominational values such as a spirit of cooperation and harmony, gratitude, wanting the best for everyone. The primary audience is the legislators themselves, not the people who come before them.

One of 151 Christian prayers delivered in the AZ Legislature in 2021

Secular AZ’s research has uncovered a huge variety of practices being used in Arizona. Commendably, some counties – Cochise, Coconino, and Graham, to mention a few – have no invocations. Flagstaff, Phoenix, and Bisbee are among the cities with no prayers at their council meetings. Secular Communities for Arizona considers this to be the best practice. One out of four Arizonans claim no religion. They are citizens, taxpayers, and voters who must bring their local grievances and requests to these bodies. They should not be made to feel second-class citizens by any government body because of their beliefs.

What kind of prayer could be alienating to a nonbeliever? Here are several examples, pulled from what we have seen the last two years across the state:

  • The vice chair of a Board of Supervisors (BOS) asks everyone present to stand and pray, then leads the prayer himself.
  • A supervisor requests everyone to join him in prayer by standing and bowing their heads, then ends his prayer with “in Jesus’ name.”
  • An invited guest prays to remind leaders that when they were sworn in, they agreed to work to work for Jesus
  • A county clerk asks for the blood of Jesus to cover our country
  • A councilman says that though we come from all backgrounds and denominations, we’re all God-fearing believers (thanks to Jesus)
  • An invited pastor says we have “strayed,” that we must regain our “rightful place” in the White House, the courthouse, and the schoolhouse, and wishes evil on those leading our country into socialism.
  • A mayor’s wife, a pastor, prays for all gathered to feel Jesus’ presence
  • A county manager prays that legislators make all their decisions in accordance with God’s will in Jesus’ name.
  • A mayor asks everyone to stand and then prays: “Our father in heaven, lord of all, Jesus, we want to see you high and glorified.”
  • A BOS chair asks everyone to stand, then prays about the unrest in our country, asking that God “frustrate the protestors who are destroying it.”
  • Every single invocation for the past eighteen months has been done in Jesus’ name.

As appalling as some of these sound, if they are occasional deviations from an overall acceptable practice, the court will overlook them. That’s why so much data must be collected: to get a broad sense of the practice. This work is ongoing, but our letter-writing will be starting soon.

This work is funded by donations to Secular AZ.