Heated debate precedes City Council vote to end public invocation prayers

After hours of debate, City Council voted to replace the invocation prayer that formerly preceded meetings with a moment of silence. (Austin Miller/DD)

A moment of silence will replace the invocation prayer at the beginning of every formal Phoenix City Council meeting. This was decided after three hours of debate and a 5-4 vote on Wednesday night.

The vote comes after public backlash regarding members of The Satanic Temple planning to deliver an invocation at the Feb. 17 City Council meeting.

The decision to pass the moment of silence came after intense debate within the City Council.

District 6 Councilman Sal DiCiccio slammed Satanism and received applause from attendees.

“It’s a cult, it’s not a real religion,” DiCiccio said. “The moment of silence is basically the banning of prayer.”

DiCiccio and councilmen Jim Waring (District 2), Michael Nowakowski (District 7), and Bill Gates (District 3) were in opposition the moment of silence. Those who voted in favor of the moment of silence included Mayor Greg Stanton, Vice Mayor Daniel Valenzuela (District 5) and councilwomen Thelda Williams (District 1), Kate Gallego (District 8) and Laura Pastor (District 4).

Mayor Greg Stanton argued against DiCiccio after he claimed council members were pushing Satanic prayer on Twitter earlier in the week.

“I find it very sad that a member of this City Council that is so small and desperate to score political points — that he openly questions the faith of his colleagues by repeatedly suggesting that members of this body were pushing Satanic prayer,” Stanton said. “Frankly, it is the most despicable thing I have ever witnessed in my service to the city.”

DiCiccio claimed Williams and the other City Council members supportive of the moment of silence had planned the effort behind closed doors, to which Williams said they had been in all of the same meetings and that there was no conspiracy.

Williams said that prior to the meeting she had received death threats if she voted in favor of the moment of silence.

In an emotional moment, Pastor addressed DiCiccio and members of the public.

“When my colleagues attack us and my faith, that’s very personal,” she said. “When people tell me and I hear that I’m selling my soul, that’s wrong, because I’m not selling my soul. Today, God is standing with me.”

DiCiccio introduced a proposal that would require anyone who wanted to make the opening prayer to first be selected by a City Council member. The individual giving the invocation must be a Phoenix resident.

Williams countered the proposal with a substitute motion that would replace all religious invocations with a moment of silence at the beginning of every City Council meeting. This plan was met with stiff resistance within the council and among members of the public crowd that gathered, who voiced their dislike of taking prayers out of City Council meetings.

“If these particular religions want to come in representing their God, I think they should be vetted and we should determine whether they are helping our city or not,” said Burke Montoya, pastor of the Way of Life Church.

DiCiccio and Waring questioned City Manager Ed Zuercher and City Attorney Brad Holm after Holm was confused on aspects of DiCiccio’s proposal. Holm mistook the proposal for an amendment of city law.

“This city attorney has been setting this in place,” DiCiccio said. “They have been creating the problem. Ed, you and I had a conversation about the city attorney and how bad he is.”

Holm said DiCiccio’s proposal would be unconstitutional if it was to be put into place retroactively because it would become discrimination against a minority religious group.

Gallego said if DiCiccio’s proposal passed, there would not have been much the city could have done in defense of against any lawsuit brought by the Satanic Temple.

“We dramatically hurt our legal case when we said our intention was to deny one group the right to pray,” Gallego said.

Contact the reporter at Kmlane5@asu.edu.