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Councilman DiCiccio Wants To Revive Prayer At Phoenix Council Meetings

Sal DiCiccio
Paul Atkinson/KJZZ
Sal DiCiccio

A Phoenix city council member plans to bring prayer back to meetings by putting it to a vote of the people.

Faced with a tough decision — end public prayer or likely suffer a lawsuit — the city council on Wednesday evening opted for a moment of silence, rather than let followers of the Satanic Temple in Tucson deliver the invocation at an upcoming meeting.

The move has divided the council and faith community, with some like Phoenix Councilman Sal DiCiccio accusing certain city leaders and staff of orchestrating the vote in an effort to suppress religious expression. 

“No other governments had this problem with prayer. None. Everybody’s found a way to make it work, just like we should have been able to," said DiCiccio after the 5-4 vote. "Multiples ideas were out there. The council chose to ban those ideas and ban the prayer altogether.”

DiCiccio said he has been flooded with messages and calls from constituents urging him to push forward with a ballot initiative that would revive the tradition of opening prayer.

"They basically bended to the goal of the Satanist group out of Tucson," said DiCiccio of his fellow council members who voted for a moment of silence.

Mayor Greg Stanton and others blasted DiCiccio at Wednesday's meeting for implying they supported the Satanists and sought to "end prayer."

Stanton called some of the political attacks the "most despicable thing that I have ever witnessed in my service to the city." He said taking the other proposed route, which would have allowed council members to pick the person who gives invocation, would have put the city in "constitutional peril."

DiCiccio said they haven't crafted the language for the ballot measure yet, but he believes there are many options that would be constitutional. His next step will be to call a special meeting of the council.  

Phoenix, in fact, is not the first city to grapple with this very constitutional dilemma.

A Florida activist has become notorious for trying to bring his own form of religious expression to government forums.

“And my religion requires that I bring my twerking deacons of sin and a mariachi band," said Chaz Stevens. 

Solicitations like that drove four cities in South Florida to replace their invocations with silence, he said.

“There is no inclusiveness. It’s a majority. And it’s not a war on Christmas. It’s a war on Christian privilege," said Stevens, "Now that the Satanists, the Druids and the Wiccans are pushing back finally, they're saying, 'screw you.' “

Stevens called himself an atheist activist and is director of the Religious Liberty Project. He is not a member of the Satanic Temple, which sought to give a prayer in Phoenix.

Several years ago, Stevens made a name for himself when he used this "equal access tactic" to get a "Festivus" pole, based on a fake holiday popularized by the show "Seinfeld," installed in Florida's state Capitol. 

Recently, the city of Pompano Beach in Florida changed its rules to keep him from giving the invocation. Stevens has consulted with civil rights lawyers about that decision and said they are bothered by it, but "it's really expensive to sue someone." 

City councils have gone to a moment of silence when faced with such situations because it is the safest way to avoid a lawsuit, given a recent U.S Supreme Court decision.

"There may be changes that (city councils) could make that would have the incidental effect of altering who is going to have priority for giving invocations," said Michael McConnell, director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, who spoke to KJZZ's "The Show."

"But there can be no formal discrimination," said McConnell.

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Will Stone grew up with the sounds of public radio. As a senior field correspondent, he strives to tell the same kind of powerful stories that got him into the business — whether that means trudging through some distant corner of the Sonoran Desert or uncovering an unknown injustice right down the street. Since joining the KJZZ newsroom in 2015, he has covered political scandals, fights over the future of energy, and efforts to care for some of Arizona’s most vulnerable communities. His pieces have also aired on national programs like Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here & Now and Marketplace. Before coming to KJZZ, he reported for public radio stations in Nevada and Connecticut. Stone received his degree in English literature from Haverford College, where he also wrote about the arts and culture scene in Philadelphia. After graduating, he interned at NPR West in Culver City, California, where he learned from some of the network’s veteran reporters and editors. When he doesn’t have a mic in hand, Stone enjoys climbing mountains, running through his central Phoenix neighborhood and shamelessly promoting his cat, Barry.