Silence Or Exile?: Ariz. Town Council Removes Rabbi Who Protested Christian Prayer At Government Meeting

We’ve said this many times, but it’s worth repeating – pre-meeting prayer is a deeply divisive issue.

An Arizona rabbi who wouldn’t go along with a local mayor’s Christian invocation at a recent town council meeting was removed from the assembly by police officers – at the mayor’s request.

On Feb. 9, Chino Valley Mayor Chris Marley said a prayer that concluded with “in the name of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” That Marley, who is a pastor, gave this invocation would not be surprising were it not for the fact that he had previously agreed to halt official invocations at Chino Valley Town Council meetings.

The council’s policy allows members the option of giving an official invocation at meetings. But in January, an individual complained about that practice, and Marley agreed to reevaluate the procedure. The problem with the invocations likely stemmed from the fact that the council isn’t what anyone would call diverse: Six of the seven members identify as Christians. The seventh, who is reportedly non-Christian, has chosen not to give invocations.

At the most recent meeting, which was attended by Rabbi Adele Plotkin of Beit Torah congregation, the council decided not to make any changes to its prayer practice. Plotkin told the Prescott Daily Courier that she had attended the meeting with the understanding that there would be no official invocation. But when Marley prayed to Jesus, Plotkin got pretty upset.

“Sitting there is giving the impression of acquiescence, so what was I to do?” she told the Daily Courier.

There’s disagreement about what happened next. Jake Bennett, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for Arizona, said in a statement that Plotkin acted “inappropriately.” But Bennett went on to say, “When a civic leader prays in Jesus’ name in such a setting, the message inevitably conveyed to non-Christians is one of exclusion.”

Whatever Marley’s justification or reasoning for removing Plotkin from the meeting, he had her escorted out by two police officers.

The sad thing is, all of this could have been avoided.

The council’s invocations are problematic for several reasons. First, it is clear that Marely and his fellow members are giving the impression that only Christians are welcome to do business with the local government. Anyone who has a problem with that must either sit in silence or could find themselves kicked out of a meeting. And while Plotkin was wrong if she caused a disturbance, it’s understandable that she was upset, and removing her from the meeting only served to give more evidence that the town council wants to exclude non-Christian voices.

The council is also in danger of running afoul of the First Amendment. While the U.S. Supreme Court said in Greece v. Galloway that it is permissible for local governments to open their meetings with primarily Christian prayers, the high court noted that government officials must at least make an effort to include other viewpoints. That doesn’t appear to be the case in Chino Valley.

Additionally, there is a wrinkle: The Greece ruling concerned official invocations given by clergy who are not government officials. The high court did not address prayers given by elected officials, but other courts have frowned upon this practice because it gives the impression, at the very least, that a legislative body endorses belief over non-belief.

We’ve said this many times, but it’s worth repeating – pre-meeting prayer is a deeply divisive issue. Marley argued that ending the prayers would deprive him and the other members of their right to worship as they choose, but that’s nonsense. Nobody is stopping them from attending church, nor did anyone say they can’t have a moment of silence before meetings to pray as they see fit.

The best course of action would be for the Chino Valley Town Council to modify its prayer practice so that all feel welcome. Clearly, removing dissenters like Plotkin will only fan the flames of discord and it could become the norm in this town if a change is not made.

Editor's Note: After this item was posted, we heard from Rabbi Plotkin. She said the following:

"I wouldn’t characterize what I did as ‘upset.'  I was put into an untenable situation given the religious principles I abide by.  By Jewish teachings, I had every right to protest in order to protect myself from spiritual violation [rape] and attempted forcing of idolatry upon me. Staying in a room blessed by an idolatrous prayer from one or more people would give tacit approval to that idolatry. I am forbidden to agree to or appear to agree to idolatrous practices and prayers.  Again I only went due to dishonest promise of moment of silence. As it stands now, I have been denied access to any future public meetings as they will all include idolatrous prayers as announced by the council. Denial of access to public functions on the basis of religious discrimination.
 
"As for what I said:  when he first announced he would do an invocation, I noted that he had promised a moment of silence. That is when he warned me of being disruptive and threatened removal if I said anything else. After the prayer I stood and said that he disrespected me, that he excluded me, and that he violated me with an idolatrous prayer... only that is not well heard on the video as he was by then instructing the police to remove me.  Hardly a disturbance for which I actually could have been arrested.  I would have had to leave regardless as explained above.
 
"Acquiescence = acquiescence to idolatrous prayer and a spiritual violation of my person."