For decades, the Phoenix City Council has begun each meeting with an opening prayer. While those invocations were typically Christian, the tradition was technically multi-denominational, with Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, among others, participating in the past. But when two members of the Satanic Temple, a group of nontheists known for their subversive political acts, signed up to lead the council in prayer this month, it sparked a fiery debate about religious discrimination and separation of church and state in the governing body.
On Wednesday, the city council decided to circumvent those contentious issues by ending the opening prayer altogether. In a 5-4 vote before a packed chamber, council members opted to instead begin each session with a moment of silence, a move seemingly aimed at keeping two Satanic Templars from delivering their invocation, which had been planned for Feb. 17.
Not everyone was satisfied with that course of action. Councilman Sal DiCiccio (R) told the Arizona Republic that it was tantamount to banning prayer, which he said was exactly what the Satanic Temple wanted. He, along with other critics who offered testimony against the measure on Wednesday, argued that there had to be another way to block the group from praying before the council.
But others, including City Attorney Brad Holm and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton -- who voted for the change -- said the legal precedent was settled. A 2014 Supreme Court decision in Town of Greece v. Galloway had held that government meetings could begin with a religious invocation, so long as they "maintain[ed] a policy of nondiscrimination."
The city officials determined that singling out the Satanic Temple would constitute a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” or from favoring one religion over another (including favoring religion over non-religion).
For those council members seeking to avoid potential litigation, the decision was seemingly between allowing the Satanists to deliver the opening prayer and changing the tradition entirely.
While some have hailed the vote as a victory for the Satanic Temple, an organization concerned more about reproductive rights and same-sex marriage than occult animal sacrifice, the two Satanists who had planned to deliver the invocation say they're disappointed by the response.
“I think it’s a little excessive,” Michelle Shortt told ABC 15.
Shortt and fellow Satanist Stu de Haan told the station that they planned to show up in "business casual attire," deliver the following message on the importance of reason and then leave.
And while they said they would have preferred for the city to include them, de Haan said the group has no plans to sue after the switch to a moment of silence.
Other advocates for church-state separation saw the council's vote as a welcome development.
"If this council is unwilling to listen to prayers from all citizens, regardless of their belief, the solution is to not have prayers at all," said Andrew Seidel, an attorney for the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a nonprofit that fights to defend the Establishment Clause.
"Government prayers are an all-or-none proposition," he continued.
Over the past few years, the Satanic Temple has campaigned to expose the religious double standards often exhibited by government officials. Their efforts have led them to put up holiday displays at state Capitols, alongside nativity scenes and menorahs.
In other cases, they've helped apply pressure against actions that they see as violating the separation of church and state. In Oklahoma, the Satanic Temple had planned to erect a large statue of the goat-headed idol Baphomet at the state Capitol, next to a controversial statue of the Ten Commandments. When the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the Ten Commandments display unconstitutional, they ended up moving Baphomet to Detroit.
The Satanic Temple has since petitioned to build a similar statue in Arkansas, where state lawmakers last year passed a law directing the state to allow the building of a privately funded monument to the Ten Commandments on Capitol grounds.
Also on HuffPost: