Phoenix City Attorney Brad Holm felt he had to deliver the hard truth to city council members and the more than 100 people who had jammed into a standing-room-only meeting on Feb. 3.
Holm said the city council could block Michelle Shortt, a member of the Phoenix chapter of the Satanic Temple, from doing the invocation at the council’s meeting Feb. 17. The Satanic Temple was sure to file suit, alleging the city had violated their constitutional rights as spelled out in the First Amendment.
And, Holm said, the city council was sure to lose.
“Mayor and council cannot decide that this woman would not be allowed to offer her spoken prayer,” Holm said. “Our view as the city’s attorney’s office and my view personally as the city attorney is that we would be likely to lose that case.”
The Satanic Temple asked to deliver the city council meeting’s invocation in January and was put on the city council’s agenda for Feb. 17. It was a decision that didn’t go public until the last week of January. And when it went public, it went viral. It went ballistic.
Sal DiCiccio, a member of the city council, threw the cat out of the bag on Jan. 28 when he tweeted, “Another dumb idea by the city. Satanists are set to deliver the invocation at the Feb 17th Council meeting.”
The Phoenix New Times reported the Satanic Temple fired right back the next day by tweeting, “This is what Religious Liberty looks like when you open the forum, Councilman. Little Civics Lesson.”
Alarm bells sounded at Phoenix City Hall. Attorneys were put on high alert. City council members scrambled to block the Satanic Temple’s invocation while keeping prayers a part of their meetings.
The Arizona Republic reported four city council members offered a plan to let the mayor and the council take turns inviting religious groups of their choice to deliver the invocations. Of course, nobody was expected to encourage the Satanists, and no one would.
That proposal was on the agenda for the Feb. 3 city council meeting, an emergency session. And a vote was expected until Holm delivered the hard truth. Nothing would be better, nothing at all.
He advised the council to replace their invocation with a “silent prayer” or a moment of silence. It was very logical. If no one were selected to say a prayer, no one would sue.
Funny enough, that is exactly what Stu de Haan, a Phoenix Satanic Temple member, had suggested the previous week.
“If they don’t want to accept, constitutionally what must happen is that all voices must be taken down from the public forum,” said de Haan. “It’s basically all voices must be heard or none at all.”
Perfect solution? Not according to Pastor Darlene Vasquez, who wept as she told the city council a moment of silence would be waving a white flag of surrender to the Satanic Temple.
“I want those who believe in the one true God to pray. It breaks my heart to hear what is going on,” she told the council.
Creating a moment of silence would give the Satanists a “big win,” city council member DiCiccio said during nearly two hours of stormy debate over Attorney Holm’s proposal.
“This is what that Satanist group wants,” DiCiccio said. “A moment of silence is basically a banning of prayer. It’s to agree to the Satanic goal to ban prayer.”
In the end, Mayor Greg Stanton and four city council members won the argument over four other council members. The final vote was 5-4 and the Phoenix City Council’s practice of hearing a prayer at the start of their meetings was history.
Stanton said he wasn’t happy to do it, but there was no alternative.
“The First Amendment to the Constitution is not ambiguous on this issue,” Stanton said. “Discriminating against faiths would violate the oath that all of us on this dais took. I personally take that very, very seriously.”
Doug Mesner, who uses the name “Lucien Greaves” when he speaks for the Satanic Temple, which is based in New York, told the Friendly Atheist newsletter Mayor Stanton and the Phoenix City Council were right not to test the mettle of the Temple.
“Hopefully, the upshot of all the chaos and outrage,” Mesner said, “that our forthcoming invocation is now causing will be a hard fast lesson in Constitutional Law for our bloated, puzzled, and mentally atrophied theocrats.”
The battle in Phoenix was not the first time, nor will it be the last occurrence of Mesner (Greaves) fighting for what he sees as the Satanic Temple’s rightful place in U.S. society.
Mesner told the Village Voice in 2014 that above all he did not want the Satanic Temple to be “demonized.”