“In the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit.”

So ended the invocation by Pastor Azaph Crespo of the Centro Familiar Cristiano prior to Wednesday’s regular meeting of the Nogales City Council. Crespo or another member of the local Christian clergy has been saying a religious invocation prior to every council meeting since Mayor Arturo Garino took office at the start of 2011.

“I think it’s very important that we bring in our faith,” Garino said after Wednesday’s meeting, calling an invocation “the proper way to start a meeting.”

However, the practice, which is unique among local government agencies, has drawn criticism from some city residents.

“There is a separation of church and state. Period. That is the beginning and the end of the discussion,” Mary Darling, Sr., said. “If you want to pray, go to a room before the meeting and do it in private.”

The U.S. Supreme Court may soon have the final say in whether the practice continues.

Last week, the Court heard arguments about whether prayer at town board meetings in Greece, N.Y. violate the separation of church and state enshrined in the First Amendment.

The prayers at Greece board meetings bear strong parallels to the invocations at Nogales City Council meetings, in which nearly everyone bows their heads and listens to a religious leader ask for guidance from a higher power, named sometimes as “God,” or “the Almighty,” or even explicitly referenced as “Jesus Christ.”

The case from Greece is known as Town of Greece v. Galloway, after one of the two people who attended the board meetings and objected to the pre-meeting prayer. The plaintiffs protested on the grounds that the board was endorsing Christianity because prior to their lawsuit all of the clergy who said the prayers were Christian and referenced Christianity in the prayers.

Broadly put, the issue is whether predominantly Christian prayer offered at public meetings violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which states, in part: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The counter-argument is that the United States has a long tradition of prayer before legislative meetings and that the Greece town board did not explicitly promote Christianity, nor did it coerce meeting attendees to participate in Christianity.

The Supreme Court Justices are expected to decide the case by next summer.

Legal liability

No other local governmental body, including school boards and the Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors, make regular religious references at their public meetings beyond reciting “one nation, under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But after consulting with the city’s legal department, Garino said, he was assured that invocations were permissible as long as all denominations were included.

The Arizona Republic reported on Thursday that the school board in Mesa had ended its practice of starting meetings with a non-denominational prayer after legal counsel advised that the school district would likely lose if someone sued over the prayers.

Nogales City Attorney Jose Luis Machado said he was not familiar with the Mesa board's decision, but in a January 2011 memo to the council members obtained by the NI through a public records request, he wrote that the city “is subject to potential liability for allowing legislative prayer.”

However, that liability can be reduced by offering non-sectarian prayer and by “adopting a policy of inviting religious leaders of different denominations and faiths” to give the prayer, he wrote.

Speaking Thursday, Machado said explicit references to Jesus Christ could create some legal liability for the city. “Now that the issue has arisen, we’ll have to look at that,” he said.

Not everybody

According to Garino, the invocation reflects the character of the community. “Everybody feels that it’s proper. I have never had anybody say, ‘I oppose that. You shouldn’t be doing that,’” he said.

But Nogales resident Prescott Vandervoet, who regularly attends city council meetings, said the invocation “creates the setting that automatically defines the city and the public meeting with a religious tone.”

If the council wants to have an invocation, then it “definitely should be non-denominational,” Vandervoet said.

“When they use the term ‘Jesus Christ,’ they are being exclusive.”

An acceptable invocation “would not be directly affiliated with any organized religion and should not offend another religion,” he said, noting that some Nogalians do not believe in a god of any form.

Garino and City Manager Shane Dille, speaking after Wednesday’s meeting, said the city tries to be as inclusive as possible. However, Dille acknowledged that a member of the Christian faith has said every invocation to date.

“It’s not by choice. We’ve opened the gates to allow everybody” to say the invocation, he said.

“Everybody has an opportunity,” Garino added.

After deciding to have the invocations, Garino’s office sent letters to religious leaders throughout the county – and even to Green Valley and Sierra Vista, Garino said.

Noting the presence of many people of the Jewish and other faiths in Nogales, Dille said “I would love to have one of them come in here.” Atheists are welcome to say the invocation or “just recognize a moment of silence,” he said, “as long as it was respectful and wasn’t out of line.

“The whole purpose is to help us be our best selves,” Dille said.

Garino agreed, referencing the acrimony that plagued the council during the tenure of former Mayor Octavio Garcia-Von Borstel. “We needed prayer, serious prayer,” he said of that era.

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