Ohio

Public Documents Show City Council Split Over Prayer Ban

Organizations

Previously, Media Trackers Ohio reported that Mount Vernon City Council President Bruce Hawkins unilaterally removed the long-standing traditional legislative invocation from the City Council agenda, due to a complaint from local progressive community activist Ryan Kitko.

Kitko, who is in a romantic relationship with the president of the Knox County Democratic Party, Adam Gilson, sent a letter to Hawkins claiming that the council’s non-sectarian prayer offended his beliefs.

According to public records obtained by Media Trackers Ohio, Kitko initially complained on March 15, 2012, and received Hawkins’ offer of compromise — removing the invocation from the official City Council agenda, but holding it just before the meeting started — on April 24.

Kitko complained that the city was violating the First Amendment, as interpreted by the case Joyner v. Forsyth County, NC. Kitko, a biology major, claimed that the Supreme Court found that “the prayer that was found unconstitutional was not listed on the agenda and took place before the opening gavel and these facts did not shield the Forsyth County Board from a constitutional challenge.”

The City Law Director, William Smith, was taking an extended vacation outside of the United States until just before then and was therefore unavailable for consultation with Hawkins until later.

Kitko alleges in a subsequent letter to Hawkins that the city has been collaborating with the Alliance Defense Fund, and states that he is “slightly offended” that Hawkins would think that his offer of a compromise position would be acceptable. He writes that the City Council’s invocation made him feel “uncomfortable and embarrassed,” and worried about being [looked] at” and “judged for [his] defiance during the prayer ritual.”

Kitko goes on to call the legislative invocation a “religious test,” worrying that City Council would not listen to his concerns  “if he didn’t play along with the government sanctioned prayer.”

Contrary to Kitko’s allegations, the Alliance Defense Fund did not contact the City of Mount Vernon until May 15 — a month later than Kitko alleged they had contacted the city.  ADF Senior Legal Counsel Brett Harvey wrote to City Council members that Kitko’s attempts at legal scholarship were incorrect — Joyner v. Forsyth County only applies to 5 states, none of which are Ohio.

Additionally, Harvey writes that the United States Supreme Court addressed the matter of legislative invocations in the case Marsh v. Chambers (1983), ruling that such invocations were not unconstitutional.

As recently as last week, City Council members continued to struggle to convince Hawkins to overturn his prayer ban. Councilwoman Nancy Vail wrote to fellow City Council members and Mayor Richard Mavis, “Bruce, you know that you can resolve this whole issue by simply putting the invocation back onto the agenda, as it has been for many years. […] It was your decision to remove it, and is your decision to restore it.”

Public records show that recently elected Council members John Fair, Janis Seavolt, and John Francis are in agreement with Vail’s position, making the pro-prayer faction a majority of the City Council. Fair, Seavolt, and Francis are all Republicans.

Days after Kitko’s letter, State Representative Margaret Ann Ruhl — whose district includes Mount Vernon — weighed in, advising Hawkins to “continue as you have and let this individual sue you. Let the court tell you that it is wrong.””

Ruhl noted that she found it “odd” that two former City Council Presidents, both Democrats, held invocations in their sessions for years without any complaints from citizens

Ruhl provided Hawkins with an internal letter of memorandum from the Ohio Legislative Services Commission, a nonpartisan research agency serving the legislature, which noted that “the courts likely would affirm the constitutionality of prayer before Ohio’s legislative bodies.”

Ruhl had requested that the Legislative Services Commission research applicable state laws and court rulings, and forwarded the agency’s legal advice to the city.

Throughout Hawkins’ communications with colleagues, he repeatedly expressed his desire for the controversy to go away and blamed his fellow city council members for stoking the controversy.

“I think that if this festers too long, it will be more of an issue,” Hawkins writes in an e-mail to Mavis and Smith. “Basically several council members left me out to hang last night. [……] I am thinking about turning the tables.”

In the e-mail, Hawkins goes on to outline a strategy intended to divert blame for potential legal action onto the council members who supported the reinstatement of the legislative invocation.

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