A legal challenge involving who can lead prayers at the beginning of Scottsdale’s city council meeting will be the subject of a federal trial later this month, and the outcome could impact municipal and county meetings across Arizona.
The Satanic Temple and other plaintiffs alleges the City of Scottsdale violated the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment when Michelle Shortt, a Satanist who co-founded the Temple’s Arizona chapter, was prevented from performing the invocation at a 2016 city council meeting after being invited by city staff to do so.
In November, a federal judge denied a motion by the city to dismiss the lawsuit, setting the stage for a two-day trial starting Jan. 22. Senior District Judge David Campbell will decide the case without a jury.
Under the Establishment Clause, the government is prohibited from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion” or unduly favoring one religion over another, while the Equal Protection Clause prohibits states and their political subdivisions from denying a person “with equal protection of the laws.”
The City of Scottsdale, however, is being accused of doing just that when the city manager disinvited Shortt after she was scheduled by the mayor’s office to give the invocation at a July 2016 council meeting.
The lawsuit filed by Tucson attorney and Satanist Stuart de Haan seeks a finding that Scottsdale violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights and requests a court order enjoining city officials from denying The Satanic Temple or its members the opportunity to participate in future invocations. It also asks for an award of costs, attorneys’ fees, and “all other relief as the Court finds just.”
According to court records, Shortt asked in February 2016 to be added to Scottsdale’s list of groups wishing to volunteer to give invocations for council meetings. Previously the only groups involved had been ones which represented Abrahamic religions such as Judaism and Christianity.
Once on the list, Shortt was invited by the mayor’s office to participate in the July 6, 2016 council meeting. She was later uninvited by the city manager after thousands of emails and phone calls were received by city officials objecting to Shortt’s planned participation. The matter even garnered national media coverage.
The city’s official reason for Shortt’s disinvitation was that she and The Satanic Temple had no “substantial connection” to the city. However, attorneys de Haan discovered that several individuals from outside the Scottsdale area participated in invocations before and after the controversy.
Documents also show Scottdale city officials understood at the time that “disparate treatment” based on religion is prohibited by law, but several councilmembers openly expressed their displeasure with Shortt being added to the invocation list.
One council member wrote “this is taking equality too far” while another called it “an absurd notion” that Satanists were considered a religion, adding he wanted council deliberations “to be blessed and guided by God alone.” In addition, the then-mayor was quoted as saying Shortt was disinvited because the city was “standing up to this ridiculing of religion” by deciding to “send this Satanist sideshow elsewhere.”
The mayor’s statement made no reference about whether The Satanic Temple or Shortt failed to show any connection to the Scottsdale area. The city later allowed an invocation by the Phoenix Indian Center (Native American) and someone of the Islamic faith.
Scottsdale is currently represented by the Dickinson Wright Law Firm. The city recently discussed the cost of legal services to defend the case, which is estimated to be close to $200,000.
Depending on how Judge Campbell rules, the case may end up before the U.S. Supreme Court due to a recent decision by the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over federal appeals in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia.
In July 2019, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that Brevard County, Florida used an unconstitutional and discriminatory policy to determine who could offer invocations at county meetings. The appellate opinion noted county commissioners “favored some religions over others and barred those they did not approve of from being considered” in violation of the Establishment Clause.
If the Scottsdale verdict conflicts with the Florida ruling, the U.S. Supreme Court could be asked to address the disparity in how lower courts are ruling on the same issue.