The question of whether Canal Winchester City Council will -- or should -- start its meetings with a prayer or invocation will remain undecided until after council returns in August from its summer recess.
Members heard a second reading of the proposed legislation July 2 during a meeting at which they also heard from a member of the Ohio House of Representatives, reassuring them that religion has traditionally had a place in government.
Rep. Richard Brown (D-Canal Winchester), a lawyer who represents the 20th District, said it is "legally permissible to commence a government meeting with prayer, as long as you don't go too far in a particular direction. ... In the Ohio House, we have a prayer before every session, delivered by persons of various faiths."
Council Vice President Mike Walker proposed the rule change in April, seeking a prayer or invocation. However, council's rules committee voted 3-0 to begin meetings with a moment of silence instead. Council would then review the practice every two years.
"A moment of silence is similar to flying a flag at half-mast, mourning for those who died recently," Walker said. "I don't want to redefine a moment of silence or moment of silent reflection, and this is how it's defined over and over again."
During council's June 18 meeting, Walker attempted to change the phrase "moment of reflective silence" to "invocation," but the proposed amendment produced a 3-3 vote, with Walker, council President Bruce Jarvis and Bob Clark voting in favor and the three members of the rules committee -- Patrick Lynch, Mike Coolman and Jill Amos -- voting against. Councilman Will Bennett did not vote on the amendment, he said, because he wanted more discussion.
Walker is expected to seek the same amendment when council returns from its summer recess Aug. 6.
"I'm just asking that we think hard on this and use our own conscience and pray for the city and its 8,000 people," he said. "That's all I intended this to be."
The practice is not uncommon. Many legislative bodies across central Ohio and the nation open public meetings with a prayer or invocation. Walker pointed to Reynoldsburg, Westerville, Columbus, Circleville, Newark and Johnstown as doing so.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld prayers at public meetings in 2014 after the city of Greece, New York, was challenged in court for violating the constitutional separation of church and state.
Walker wants to involve all of the nearly two dozen churches in Canal Winchester, asking clergy to provide a prayer or invocation at every meeting on a rotating basis. Discussion has focused on the logistics of ensuring someone appears for every meeting.
"This could simply be put out once a year to our 22 churches in a letter," Walker said. "To be put on a list, first-come, first-served. What days do they have open? ... If clergy didn't show, we could always refer back to council. I want to open it up to all churches."
City Law Director Gene Hollins delivered guidelines in a memo to Walker, saying that the Supreme Court and federal courts allow "substantial leeway" in permitting municipalities to begin meetings with an invocation.
"In summary, council members can begin legislative meetings with prayer, and it is not a problem if the prayer generally espouses the Christian faith," Hollins said in the memo. "Council can ask members to stand for prayer, refer specifically to God/Jesus, and do not have to make any special effort to provide opportunities for persons of other faiths to offer invocations."
Council also heard from Denise Mathias, who lives on Fairfield Farms Drive. While she is not a city resident, she said she felt compelled to talk about the issue because she believes a portion of her tax dollars go to Canal Winchester through levies or other means.
"I don't have a problem with it one way or another," Mathias said. "But it's a very slippery slope. You're going to have residents who won't feel like they're being addressed. You're going to have churches who won't feel like they're being addressed.
"It will turn into an administrative nightmare about whose turn is it next."