Utah Court Upholds Atheist's Prayer Before Council Meetings

The Utah Supreme Court ruled in early April that a city council violated the state's constitution when it prevented an atheist's invocation before one of its meetings.

The struggle between Murray, a suburb of Salt Lake City, and Tom Snyder erupted in 1994, when Snyder sought to offer a prayer to "Our MOTHER, who art in heaven (if, indeed there is a heaven and if there is a god that takes a woman's form)." 

The city council derided Snyder's offer, saying it was not a prayer. A state district judge agreed and dismissed Snyder's suit. The Utah Supreme Court, however, ruled that Snyder's offering was indeed a prayer that had been rejected by the council solely because of its content.

Citing state legal precedent, Utah's high court wrote that the council's practice of permitting prayers before their meetings could only survive a constitutional challenge if that practice was done on a nondiscriminatory basis and "equally accessible to all."

The court ruled 4-1 that the Murray City Council's practice of allowing prayer before its meetings was carried out in a discriminatory manner, especially in Snyder's case.

"If Murray City chooses to continue to open its city council meetings with prayer, it must strictly adhere to the neutrality requirements...," the court concluded. "Under those neutrality requirements, Snyder should be allowed to offer his prayer."

In late March, a similar dispute erupted surrounding an atheist's invocation before a Charleston, S.C., city council meeting.

Seven of the 12-member council walked out of a meeting when local college professor Herb Silverman arose to give a secular invocation. Wendell Gilliard, one of the council members, defended his action, telling the Charleston Post and Courier that, "He can worship a chicken if he wants to, but I'm not going to be around when he does it."     

Responded Silverman, "Discrimination against nonbelievers is the last civil rights struggle in which blatant discrimination is viewed as acceptable behavior. We should be judged more by our behavior than our professed religious beliefs."