MOUNT VERNON — A proposed resolution by Mount Vernon City Council member Sam Barone could bring prayer back to the city’s legislative meeting, if approved by council.
“This week’s modification of our legislative prayer policy, which was consistent with legal advise rendered to Council President Bruce Hawkins, provoked unexpected criticism,” Barone said in a statement emailed to the News, and council members Thursday evening.
Legislative prayer, which has been a “long-standing” council practice, was removed from the agenda and took place prior to the start of Monday’s council meeting. The change in practice was the result of a complaint received by Hawkins that stated the secular invocation made a council guest, who is an atheist, uncomfortable. The decision rested solely on the council president.
“The president sets the agenda. I asked for legal counsel and had a recommendation,” Hawkins said Monday at the close of the council meeting. “ … 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.”
Hawkins declined to comment to the News regarding how Bill Smith, city law director, came to his opinion regarding the prayer. Previously not prepared to release his written opinion, which is considered “work product” and does not fall under a public record, Smith told the News on Thursday he thought it was now the right thing to do.
“The practice of having prayers/invocations at sessions of deliberative public bodies, has been held, generally, not to violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, although the content of particular prayers and the policy governing the practice of legislative prayer/invocation or the selection of clergy to deliver such prayers has been challenged on constitutional grounds,” Smith stated in his opinion.
He explained the Establishment Clause, “at the very least, prohibits the government from appearing to take a position on questions of religious belief or from making adherence to religion relevant in any way to a person’s standing in the political community.”
Hawkins told the News he relied on Smith’s legal opinion and made a decision he felt best reflected the oath he took as president of council.
“When you are sworn in, you swear on a Bible you will uphold the Constitution,” Hawkins said.
In his opinion, Smith relied heavily on the 1983 case of Marsh v. Chambers, where the Supreme Court ruled a Presbyterian minister was not in violation of the Establishment Clause by providing a legislative prayer.
“To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause, the Court determined; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this county,” Smith stated. “The Court noted that the opening sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayers is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic, and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom, the Court said.”
It is the loss of that sense of history that bothers Janis Seavolt, at-large council member.
“It was probably the first time in the history of the city that we had a council meeting without a prayer,” Seavolt said.
According to John Booth, who served 36 years with City Council and is a Kiwanis member, the Kiwanis Club organizes the guests who present the invocation at each meeting. The task is not an easy one, he said.
“We try to get ministers from within the city as much as possible,” Booth said. “A lot of times it’s not easy to get one that would do it.”
He added that, if necessary, the offer would be made to someone in close proximity to the city. When asked if an effort was made to bring in leaders of faiths other than Christianity, Booth said he was not aware of any in the city, nor was he aware of the Jewish synagogue on Harcourt Road.
“If we were aware of that we could have used [a rabbi],” Booth said.
In all the years Booth served on council, he said there were no complaints regarding the legislative prayer from the “conservative community.”
In his opinion, Smith advised Hawkins that a rotation of religions is often used by other cities to preserve the integrity of invocations.
“While nothing can guarantee the avoidance of a lawsuit, some cities invite religious leaders of different denominations and faiths to give the legislative prayer at City Council meetings on a rotating basis,” Smith wrote to Hawkins. “In theory, this practice enables people of all faiths in the community feel represented and included.”
Smith’s opinion went on to suggest two conclusions: The first was to move the invocation off the agenda and provide a “non-secular prayer/invocation” prior to the start of the meeting. The second option was to “invite representatives of diverse religious backgrounds to offer words of reflection before the meeting.”
Barone’s proposed resolution takes part of Smith’s recommendation but returns the practice of “an invocation of divine guidance” as part of the regular meeting. It also delegates the president of council to schedule “representatives of Mount Vernon’s diverse religious communities” to provide the invocation and to establish guidelines these religious leaders must follow with the absence of content “to proselytize or advance any one, or to disparage any other, faith or belief.”
“We aren’t doing it to make a show,” said John Francis, representative for the 2nd Ward. “We are doing it earnestly to ask for his guidance because that’s what those who came before us have done.”
Francis said he would be in agreement if an Islamic cleric, Buddhist or believer of Hindu requested the opportunity to present the invocation.
“It should be open to all faiths,” Francis said. “We are asking for a blessing on the city; that’s all.”
Mike Hillier, council member at-large, said he has received a few phone calls from constituents who would like to see the invocation returned to the agenda.
“I’m glad to see people take an interest,” Hillier said. “We do have concern for the citizens of Mount Vernon. I’m sure we can get this worked out in civil tones … if we all just compromise a little bit.”
John Fair, 4th Ward representative, said he has received five calls from citizens who were appreciative of his stance in support of traditional legislative prayer.
“Mount Vernon is fairly conservative,” Fair said, so it did not surprise him that the community is in favor of keeping the prayer in the meeting.
Fair was the first to speak out Monday against Hawkins’ decision to remove prayer from the agenda, but feels the city has more pressing business to focus on.
Barone said he felt there is enough support for the passage of a resolution to reinstate the invocation, with some changes.
“Given the majority’s apparent willingness to ignore the advise of legal council in this matter, Council must consider, and pass, a legislative prayer resolution that is consistent with the prevailing U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the issue, and is also sensitive to contemporary challenges to that ruling that have progressed through various federal courts,” Barone said.
Although Nancy Vail is in favor of returning the invocation to the agenda, she told the News she feels it would be best accomplished if Hawkins would “simply put it back on the agenda and move on.” Vail stated she has not yet decided if she would support Barone’s proposed legislation.
Calls to Susan Karhl, at-large council member, were not returned as of press time.