Religious invocations are coming back to Nogales City Council meetings, Mayor Arturo Garino said this week.
The invocation, typically delivered as a Christian prayer since it was introduced at the start of Garino’s first stint as mayor in 2011, has been conspicuously absent from council sessions since this January, when Garino began his second, non-consecutive mayoral term.
Garino said he discontinued the invocations this year out of concern that not all local religious organizations had been given an equal opportunity to participate during the previous mayoral term of John Doyle, who continued the practice upon taking office in 2015. However, he did not offer specifics and said that the city had not received any complaints.
“Invocation is done to prepare the council, to make sure that they have a good council meeting and everything goes well, and it’s for the people of the community,” the mayor said on Wednesday.
“They need a lot of help, maybe a prayer would be good,” said Nogales resident Mary Darling, Sr., who had spoken out against the practice during Garino’s first term.
But Darling added that in the past, the invocation had been used as a political tool. “Stick to the prayer, don’t politicize it,” she said.
During the most recent invocation, delivered in December 2018 at the last meeting helmed by former Mayor Doyle, Pastor Sergio Sanchez Abdala told the council that he was speaking “so that God blesses you, so that God helps you in your decisions.”
Abdala, who is the pastor of the Roca Viva congregation in Rio Rico, gave his eight-minute invocation in Spanish.
Two years after Garino introduced the invocations, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case from New York state alleging that prayers prior to public meetings violate the first amendment’s provision for separation of church and state. The court ultimately ruled in 2014 that the prayers were constitutional, but some still took issue with the practice.
Then-City Attorney Jose Machado chose not to participate in invocations and Darling told the NI at the time: “I still think we should have separation of church and state. And this certainly isn’t separation of church and state.”
The Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors and other local government bodies have not started their meetings with an invocation in recent years.
During Garino’s campaign for re-election in 2014, he defended the prayers, saying: “The Supreme Court said it was OK, so that’s why we’re going to keep that.”
Garino ultimately lost that race, but the winner, Doyle, continued the invocations during his term.
Religious sentiment at City Hall seemed to reached new heights under Doyle. In 2016, a group of self-styled “prayer warriors,” along with Doyle, held hands around City Hall to pray for Nogales.
But Garino won the mayorship back last year and, after he took office this January, the invocations at council meetings abruptly stopped.
At first, the invocation remained on the council agenda, always as the third item, following the pledge of allegiance and preceding the call to the public. The mayor either skipped the invocation or called for a brief moment of silence instead.
In June, the invocation was lifted from the agenda.
On Wednesday, Garino said that he intended to re-start the invocations as soon as next month, after contacting local religious leaders.
“I’m a Catholic, (but) I don’t want to just concentrate on the Catholic Church, I want everybody to get an opportunity,” he said.
In other Arizona communities, including Phoenix, Scottsdale and Sahuarita, the Satanic Temple has ruffled feathers by asking to deliver invocations at local government meetings.
Asked if the Satanic Temple would be welcome at a Nogales City Council meeting, Garino said that he “wouldn’t even imagine what they would want to pray, but, I mean… if you’re going to open it up, it’s got to be open to everybody.”