MOUNT VERNON — The removal of the invocation from the legislative meeting of Mount Vernon City Council did more than raise a few eyebrows on bowed heads at City Hall on Monday night.
Instead of presenting a prayer, typically led by various city pastoral leaders, after the meeting was called to order, City Council President Bruce Hawkins offered the opportunity for those wanting to participate in the prayer to join in prior to the start of the meeting.
The move was in response to a letter Hawkins received two months ago from a Mount Vernon resident who asked him to restructure or eliminate the public prayer invocation. In his letter, Ryan Kitko referenced a case that was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court, which allowed a lower court ruling to stand that stated legislative meetings that included sectarian prayer was in violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
“Prayer in government settings carries risk,” wrote Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson II of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in North Carolina. “The proximity of prayer to official government business can create an environment in which the government prefers — or appears to prefer — particular sects or creeds at the expense of others. … Legislative prayer must strive to be nondenominational so long as that is reasonably possible — it should send a signal of welcome rather than exclusion. It should not reject the tenents of other faiths in favor of just one.”
Kitko told the News there were two issues at the heart of his request.
“Any sectarian prayer, in my personal opinion, and in most case law, is unacceptable,” Kitko said. “We live in a diverse community of many faiths and non-faiths. By having prayer in any faith creates an atmosphere of exclusion.”
Kitko said he has attended council meetings but, as an atheist, felt embarrassed in a non-welcoming atmosphere during the invocation and would like to see more of an effort by City Council to remove a secular prayer from the meeting.
Taking the prayer out of the “official” space of the meeting, while a good gesture, does not fulfill Kitko’s request.
“I would still like to see additional changes,” Kitko said. “As a matter of policy, whether prayer is before or after the gavel, if it’s in the same room, with the same people, it’s all the same. It still has the same function as a government-sanctioned prayer or event.”
Kitko would prefer the verbal prayer be removed from the evening’s schedule all together and would prefer a moment of silence to allow each individual to pray, or not pray, in their own way. Kitko said the purpose of his communication with Hawkins was to create a more welcoming environment during City Council that would not make followers of faiths other than Christianity, or no faith, feel excluded from the proceedings.
“I don’t want this to be another (John) Freshwater event,” said Kitko. “I don’t want this to be something that divides us. But, government should not be making decisions as to which religions are acknowledged.”
Members of council, including John Fair, Janis Seavolt, Nancy Vail and John Francis all expressed their disappointment in the change in procedure during the roundtable portion of the legislative meeting.
“I am not in favor of it,” said Fair. “I don’t see a need to change how we do business here.”
“I too prefer it be a part of our agenda, as it always has been,” said Vail. “The invocation is still used at the Legislature in Ohio. It is still used in federal government. Our Constitution says the ‘Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.’ I would think that we can preserve that right to exercise the invocation if that is our desire.”
“I was also disappointed to see prayer taken off the agenda,” Francis said. “We can all pray and believe differently, but to change the whole agenda over one individual defeats the purpose of democracy.”
Audience members, who did not question the change in procedure until after adjournment, see the move as a “compromise” and questioned who made the decision to change the agenda.
“The president sets the agenda. I asked for legal council and had a recommendation,” said Hawkins. “We are asked to abide by the Constitution and there was a rule that we had. So we are praying before the council meeting for all those who want to participate. I don’t know that God’s concerned if we pray at 7:28 or 7:30. We are still observing that, but it’s not during the official council meeting.”