Coolidge, Arizona, city council votes for Christian-only prayers: ACLU warns it’s unconstitutional.

An Arizona City Council Votes for Christian-Only Prayers, Citing the Constitution

An Arizona City Council Votes for Christian-Only Prayers, Citing the Constitution

The law, lawyers, and the court.
Sept. 22 2015 10:50 AM

Jesus Town

An Arizona city council votes for Christian-only prayers, citing the Constitution.

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A city council resolution in Coolidge, Arizona, endorsed a policy of Christian-only prayers.

Photo by Elfasteileen/Thinkstock

Sometimes, American religious intolerance manages to successfully hide its true nature. But other times, American religious intolerance struts into the room wearing a fake nose, eyeglasses, and a moustache. Just as GOP presidential hopeful Ben Carson announced that Muslims should be barred from the American presidency, and Donald Trump has continued to splash merrily through the Obama conspiracy theories, the city council of Coolidge, Arizona, took a little time off from governance to endorse a policy of Christian-only prayers.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate and hosts the podcast Amicus.

As Alia Beard Rau explained, the council had an item on its agenda last week that would have allowed “members of all religious organizations within Coolidge to offer a prayer, moment of silence, or short message at the start of council meetings.” We know, after the Supreme Court’s 2014 ruling in Town of Greece v. Galloway, that town boards are perfectly free to do so, as long as the community does not have a policy that would formally discriminate against minority faiths.

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The city of Coolidge in fact opened its meetings with a prayer from 1996 to 2006, stopping mainly because it had trouble getting actual local ministers interested in officiating. But at last week’s meeting, Councilman Rob Hudelson, a Baptist pastor, evidently went further and suggested amending the prayer resolution to limit it to only Christian groups. His proposal passed on a 4–2 vote.

According to the Coolidge Examiner, the original resolution would have included prayers from ministers of any faith represented within the city limits. As the council debated the original proposal, one member, Gary Lewis, pointed out that if somebody from a religion he didn’t support rose to offer a prayer, he might leave the room. “Under my faith, I wouldn’t sit here and listen to it,” Lewis said. “I would walk away.”

Speaking last was Hudelson, who, according to the Examiner, “made clear his views that the United States is a Christian nation.” “I think it’s very important. … We just proclaimed Constitution Week. You know what was said at the end of the (Revolutionary) War? A treaty in Paris that said, ‘In the name of the most Holy and undivided Trinity.’ You don’t get that from the Quran. You get it from the Bible. You get it from Christianity. That’s our heritage.”

Hudelson also said (you can watch here), “That’s our heritage. We should not be ashamed of it, nor should we be pushed into a corner because [of] Supreme Court decisions. The first prayer in Congress ended by saying, ‘Thy son, our savior, based on the merits of Jesus Christ our Lord and savior. Amen.’ ” Constitution Week evidently means different things in Coolidge than it does for the parts of the country that embrace the First Amendment.

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After Hudelson moved to amend the resolution to permit only Christian prayer, city attorney Denis Fitzgibbons explained that this would violate the Constitution. “That would complicate things,” Fitzgibbons jumped in: “The council would then be establishing Christianity (as the religion).”

No matter. Lewis seconded the amendment, and it passed. Coolidge Mayor Jon Thompson and Councilman Gilbert Lopez voted against the amended resolution, with Thompson pointing out that the town would be sued: “I’m not going to get the taxpayers sued,” Thompson said. “If I had a problem with what was being said during the prayer, I wouldn’t pay attention. … We’re going to knowingly become involved in litigation that we cannot afford.”

The resolution will now be redrafted to incorporate language providing that all future prayers can only be Christian. The next city council meeting, scheduled for Monday, will put the question to a vote. The Arizona American Civil Liberties Union has already sent the city a letter warning that it is in violation of the First Amendment if it adopts the new rule. Update, Sept. 22, 2:12 p.m.: The Coolidge City Council has abandoned the proposal to allow only Christian prayers in its meetings. 

Ironically, the original resolution, which would have restricted prayers to those from ministers of religious establishments that stood within city limits, probably would have achieved the same ends as the unconstitutional new amendment, but in the kind of sneaky, subversive way that would have avoided an ACLU lawsuit. According to the Coolidge Examiner, it’s unclear whether there are even any religious establishments in Coolidge that don’t consider themselves Christian in the first place. Still, why do with trickery what you can accomplish with an overt embrace of religious intolerance? Ask Donald Trump and Ben Carson. It’s rapidly becoming the American way.