MONTPELIER — A resident who attended the Montpelier Village Council meeting Monday evening questioned the prayer at the start of the meeting.
Elijah Utley said he was on the agenda for one of next month’s meetings and attended Monday to observe and learn about the process. During the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting, he took some time to question the prayer.
Montpelier council has a prayer as the third item on the agenda, after the call to order and roll call but before the Pledge of Allegiance. Sometimes a local member of the clergy will attend the meeting and give the prayer but a member of council will say the prayer when no other clergy are present.
“I disagree with having prayer involved in this government meeting,” Utley said. “If you are only praying to Jesus Christ, you are excluding people who pray to Allah or Vishnu or don’t pray at all. I just wanted to get that in the minutes.”
Specifically, he said the opening prayer Monday mentioned Jesus Christ, which he said was exclusionary.
“So, if you remove prayer from state, like there’s supposed to be separation of church and state, then it’s equal across the board,” he said. “You can pray on your own time to whatever god you want.”
Montpelier councilwoman Melissa Ewers said at first she found the prayer “a little strange” in the meetings.
“I did look it up, I don’t remember if it’s Ohio ordinance or Ohio law code, but I do remember reading there was something at a certain level that it is allowed to have prayer and it didn’t specifically state that it had to be a Christian prayer,” she said. “It’s just being respectful of whatever prayer is happening ... I’m just respectful of whatever is happening and welcoming to whoever or whatever faith or not faith, anybody who is here.”
The Bryan Times was unable to find anything in the Ohio Revised Code pertaining to prayer at public meetings.
However, the U.S. Supreme Court has issued rulings that state prayer before meetings does not violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause. This included Town of Greece, New York, v. Galloway, which was decided with a 5-4 decision on May 5, 2014.
The town of Greece, much like Montpelier, opened with a roll call, the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer that was almost always Christian, reflecting the congregations of the area.
“Ceremonial prayer is but a recognition that, since this Nation was founded and until the present day, many Americans deem that their own existence must be understood by precepts far beyond the authority of government to alter or define and that willing participation in civic affairs can be consistent with a brief acknowledgment of their belief in a higher power, always with due respect for those who adhere to other beliefs,” the opinion, written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, states. “The prayer in this case has a permissible ceremonial purpose. It is not an unconstitutional establishment of religion.”
The majority opinion also cited another precedent, that of Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 court case decided by a 6-3 vote.
That decision also found no First Amendment violation with prayer at a public meeting.
“The decision concluded that legislative prayer, while religious in nature, has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause,” the Greece v. Galloway ruling states. “As practiced by Congress since the framing of the Constitution, legislative prayer lends gravity to public business, reminds lawmakers to transcend petty differences in pursuit of a higher purpose, and expresses a common aspiration to a just and peaceful society.”
Utley said just because it’s a law doesn’t mean it is correct.
“The Nazis had laws, that doesn’t make them correct,” he said.
Williams County Prosecutor Katie Zartman told The Bryan Times Tuesday she’s not been formally asked for an opinion on the topic of prayer at public meetings in the county during her term. She agrees that it appears prayer in public meetings is not expressly forbidden in the ORC, and that the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld that legislative prayer has long been understood as compatible with the Establishment Clause, which is the clause in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution that prohibits the establishment of religion by Congress.
The Rev. Mary Beth McCandless, who delivered the prayer at Monday’s meeting, said she agreed with Utley about the separation of church and state.
She said Monday was the first time in months she prayed in the name of Jesus Christ.
“I almost always do not do that for the very reason you just said,” Smith-Gunn told Utley. “I appreciate your comment and that affirms my decision to not do that. So, thank you for saying that because I think there’s room for more people at the table than we sometimes acknowledge.”
Another person at the meeting, Mike Paschall, said he appreciated the council opening with a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance.
Montpelier isn’t the only government body in the county that opens with a prayer.
West Unity has a prayer on its agenda listed after the call to order and before the pledge. The Edgerton Village Council doesn’t have the pledge or prayer on its agenda but both are said at the beginning of the meeting.
Bryan City Council, Edon Village Council, Pioneer Village Council and the Williams County Commissioners’ meetings don’t include a prayer.
Separately, Utley also said he was confused with the signage on the door at the meeting. The council meets at the police department’s conference room and the door has a sign saying “restricted access only.”
“I felt like I wasn’t welcome; I felt that by coming in I was maybe breaking the law,” he said. “Perhaps the signage needs updated to let people know the town hall meeting is in here and the public is welcome.”