Murray Asks Court to Reconsider Prayer Ruling

Murray Asks Court to Reconsider Prayer Ruling

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SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- The city of Murray wants the Utah Supreme Court to reconsider its ruling of two weeks ago allowing an atheist to pray to Mother in Heaven before City Council meetings.

Attorneys for the city on Friday filed a petition for rehearing, arguing the state Supreme Court misinterpreted an earlier appeals court ruling as well as a previous decision of its own on prayer during government-sponsored events.

Murray's petition declares that allowing 71-year-old atheist Tom Snyder to offer what the city considers a disparaging prayer would force the city to violate the U.S. Constitution.

But Snyder's attorney, Brian Barnard, says if the city were to get what it's asking for, it would have to examine subjectively every proposed prayer before deeming it worthy of recitation before the public.

"That process then would unquestionably violate the Establishment Clause, because you've got government sitting in judgment of people's prayers," Barnard said Saturday.

Government should never be allowed to so minutely examine or dissect anyone's religious beliefs, he said.

Attempts Saturday to reach Richard Van Wagoner, Murray's lead attorney on the case, were unsuccessful.

The city's attorneys are reaching back to a 1998 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, which held that while Snyder's prayer didn't deserve protection under the U.S. Constitution, he could pursue his claims based on Utah law.

But the state Supreme Court on April 11 held that because the justices relied on Utah law and its Constitution, which is more specific than its federal counterpart, and because the case was in state court, it didn't need to rely on U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The state high court's 4-1 ruling reversed the dismissal of a lawsuit that Snyder, 71, filed in state court in 1999.

The high court based its latest ruling on a 1993 state Supreme Court decision that upheld Salt Lake City's right to hear prayers during official events as long as the opportunity to deliver the prayer was nondiscriminatory.

The 1993 decision rested on an interpretation of an article in the state Constitution: "No public money or property shall be appropriated for applied to any religious worship, exercise or instruction, or for the support of any ecclesiastical establishment."

The court concluded that "no public money" did not necessarily mean an absolute prohibition, but that public money could be spent as long as it benefited everyone equally. All religions, no matter how repugnant to the mainstream, would have to be welcome.

In its petition for rehearing, Murray City argues that the only way for any government to honor both the state and federal constitutions is to ban prayers from all public meetings -- which the 1993 ruling prohibits.

Van Wagoner has said the city believes the U.S. Constitution trumps Utah's.

The petition also points to the 10th Circuit's statement that public prayer becomes intolerable when "the prayer opportunity has been exploited to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief."

Snyder and Barnard have been pursuing the Murray prayer lawsuit since 1994, when Snyder first filed suit in federal court against the city for allowing other pre-meeting prayers but refusing to let him offer a prayer addressed to "Our Mother, who art in heaven."

Among other things, the prayer asked for deliverance "from the evil of forced religious worship now sought to be imposed upon the people ... by the actions of misguided, weak and stupid politicians, who abuse power in their own self-righteousness."

In his statement, Barnard said Murray is proposing that only "bland, generic, non-heartfelt" prayers should be allowed before meetings.

Barnard said he and his client aren't allowed to file a response to the petition unless the Supreme Court asks for one.

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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