After several melted candles were found around the fountain in front of City Hall on April 20, city administration notified police and a prayer group was summoned to the site “because someone was concerned that the placement of the candles could have been done with malice towards the City of Nogales,” according to a police report.

In the end, it turned out that the leftover wax was not evidence of any sinister ritual, but rather the remnants of a teenage boy’s plan to “woo” a girl, police said.

Less than two weeks later, on May 1, a group of self-proclaimed “prayer warriors” held a rally at City Hall at which hundreds of people held hands and circled the building during a religious revival-style gathering to pray for the city. Mayor John Doyle, who participated in the event and was introduced as the city’s first “God-fearing mayor,” said the group prayed because they felt “that certain things are hanging over our community that need to be attacked in a spiritual way.”

Doyle also issued an official proclamation marking May 5 as the National Day of Prayer under the theme “Wake Up America” and based on the Biblical verse Isaiah 58:1a. But while National Day of Prayer is based on an act of Congress, it is meant at the government level to be inclusive, allowing not just Christians but people of all faiths to give thanks. The Biblical reference in Doyle’s proclamation was based on a theme devised by the nonprofit National Day of Prayer Task Force, an evangelical conservative Christian group.

The flurry of recent evangelical Christian-themed activity at City Hall comes as Doyle has tried to create a stronger relationship between the city and local religious groups. In fact, Doyle’s National Day of Prayer proclamation was featured prominently in a paid advertisement that ran April 29 in the Nogales International, in which the “prayer warriors” behind the May 1 rally invited area residents to “glorify Jesus Christ” at City Hall.

Doyle says the League of Arizona Cities and Towns recommended that cities build closer relationships with churches to provide services that the city may not be able to, such as drug counseling. He has taken that recommendation a step further by bringing his personal religious convictions and the people who preach them closer to City Hall.

“If we don’t trust in God, who do we trust in? I don’t mind standing for that issue,” Doyle said in a phone interview last Friday.

However, an expert at the George Washington University law school said some of the recent mayor-endorsed activities at City Hall raise “complicated” questions about the separation of church and state.

Ira Lupu, the F. Elwood and Eleanor Davis professor emeritus of law at GWU whose research focuses on constitutional law with an emphasis on religious freedom, said Doyle’s involvement in the May 1 prayer rally at City Hall treads close to the line separating church and state, but is not outright unconstitutional.

“When the mayor joins them, it gets a little bit more complicated,” he said. “If the mayor is acting in his official capacity and participating (in the rally), is that the city sponsoring the prayer or is it just a private citizen? It’s questionable.”

As for the mayor’s official National Day of Prayer proclamation, Lupu said the advertisement does not make it clear if it was the group or the mayor specifically inviting people to “glorify Jesus Christ.”

“If the ad made it clear that the invitation came from the pastors, and not from the mayor in his official capacity, the problem would go away,” he said. “The pastors have every right to reprint the proclamation in the pastors’ own ad. But I cannot see such a source for the invitation from that ad.”

Lupu said the ad “essentially identified (Doyle’s) office … with a particular religious community.”

“That is crossing the line,” he added.

Mayoral invocations

The issue of church-state separation at City Hall also surfaced during the previous mayoral administration of Arturo Garino after Garino began inviting local Christian clergy to deliver a religious invocation at the start of council meetings.

In a January 2011 memo to the mayor and council, City Attorney Jose Luis Machado wrote that the city “is subject to potential liability for allowing legislative prayer,” but said liability could 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.

But in May 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that local governments can have clergy deliver a prayer prior to meetings, as long as they don’t discriminate against minority faiths or coerce people to participate.

Since Doyle took office in January 2015, the Christian invocations have continued at council meetings, sometimes with the mayor himself delivering them.

At the May 4 regular council meeting, Doyle gave the invocation after the pastor scheduled to speak didn’t show up. During his sermon, Doyle mentioned Jesus Christ, which Arizona State University law expert Paul Bender called “a problem.”

“That’s problematic to me,” Bender, dean emeritus at ASU’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, said of the mayor delivering the invocation. “It’s one thing to call a clergyman to give a prayer … but when you have the mayor giving a prayer, specifically a Christian prayer, the administration is not supposed to be aligned with a particular religious group.”

Prayers answered?

After following up on the concern over the melted candles at City Hall on April 20, the responding police officer wrote in a report that he had not seen “any indicators of any ritualistic and or ceremonial practices with ill-intent towards the City of Nogales or anyone else,” adding that “it was obvious to me that nothing at the scene indicated any signs of satanic, Santeria, voodoo, wiccan or any other satanic/witch type religions.”

The Nogales Police Department posted a photo of the candles to its Facebook page, and a spokesman said NPD received a private message from someone who said his friend had used the candles as a prop the previous night to “woo” a girl, and the group hadn’t cleaned up afterward.

Doyle insisted the group that prayed at the site after the candles were found wasn’t there to ward off possible witchcraft, but to prepare for the rally on May 1.

“Pastor (Dan Trevitz) Trevino asked if it was OK to start praying ahead of the rally. Get God’s blessing so that for them it was a successful turnout,” Doyle said.

Trevino also submitted a letter to the Nogales International in advance of the May 1 rally in which he encouraged people to attend and pray for the city and county.

“If there was ever a time when we needed to be on alert for our city and county and pray day and night for our neighborhoods, it is now,” he wrote. “Too many evil things are happening at an increasing rate. We have the secret prayer and God’s presence that can touch our cities and ward off the evil intent of the enemy.”

In a video of the prayer rally, hundreds of people could be seen holding hands around City Hall as they shouted indistinct slogans. In a separate video that was removed from Facebook and YouTube after the NI began reporting this story, a pastor refers to Doyle occupying a “throne.”

Doyle stood by his involvement in the events, and even suggested that the $25 million set aside in the new state budget for the acceleration of construction on State Route 189 in Nogales was due to the group’s prayers, though the bills to allocate the funds were introduced prior to the rally.

“(The pastors) asked what problems we face here in city government, we prayed for SR 189. We’ve worked so hard the last couple of years on SR 189 but we were short on the funds,” Doyle said, adding: “The budget passed through the House with support for SR 189, that was when things kind of changed around. Prayer and faith are two things that you really can’t see visibly, in other words, you see the effect or the final result, but you can’t follow it visibly. Some could say it’s coincidence.”

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