Mount Vernon Prayer Dispute Ends With Compromise


An Ohio city council that recently eliminated the group’s pre-meeting invocation has reinstated the prayer after weeks of debate over the role that religious invocations can have in city government proceedings.  The Mount Vernon city council accepted a compromise by councilman Sam Barone that will allow spiritual leaders of different faiths to open the meeting in their own way on a rotating basis.

The controversy started when city officials announced that Ryan Kitko, a registered Democrat, had written a letter to city council president Bruce Hawkins, a Republican, in which Kitko complained that the council’s traditional legislative invocation infringed upon his rights under the First Amendment.

Kitko, a first-year graduate student in Ohio State University’s Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology program, wrote that he believed the city was violating the federal Constitution by holding a brief, nondenominational legislative invocation before the meeting.

The city’s law director, Bill Smith, recommended that Hawkins remove the prayer from the Council’s agenda, a move that sparked the ire of a majority of the city council members and angered members of the community.

Public records requests showed that a majority of the city council wished Hawkins would simply put the prayer back on the agenda, as he had been responsible for its removal.

Although the four city council members each had reservations about Barone’s resolution, it was passed unanimously. While presenting it for a vote, Barone noted that he drafted the resolution with the counsel of pro-Christian legal defense organization the Alliance Defense Fund.

Barone said that he believed the controversy had been a “teachable moment” for the city of Mount Vernon, and that he had learned a great deal about the First Amendment and the Constitution over the last few weeks.

Before voting “yes,” councilman John Fair noted that the resolution set a precedent for the creation of a tyranny of the minority, and asked that his objections be logged in the meeting’s minutes.

According to statistics collected by the Glenmary Research Center, 63 percent of Mount Vernon citizens identify as Christian. Council members John Francis, Janis Seavolt, and Nancy Vail echoed his remarks, asking that it be noted that they concurred with Fair’s reservations. However, all ultimately voted in favor of Barone’s resolution.

As late as last week, the four council members had reportedly promised concerned members of the community that they would not approve Barone’s compromise.

Donald Matolyak, pastor of Mount Vernon Trinity Assembly of God Church, said that while he didn’t believe it was necessary to change the city’s laws to restore the tradition, he was happy that the city council decided to continue the tradition of holding a legislative invocation. Matolyak was one of many community members attending the May 28 meeting.

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