An attempt to clarify a policy regarding prayer at the start of Oak Harbor City Council meetings transformed into a political hot potato.
News of a new policy restricting what should be said during council invocations spread quickly over the weekend, upsetting many who argue a change would violated people’s freedom of religion and speech.
At least a dozen people attended Tuesday night’s council meeting to speak out on the issue; some said they are specifically upset the proposals state that speakers should not invoke the name of a deity.
“When I read the proposed resolution I was deeply disturbed to find wording that would dictate to which God I may pray when offering an invocation here in the council chambers,” said Ron Lawler, pastor for Family Bible Church.
Several council members said they are upset that the mayor placed the item on the agenda without their foreknowledge and that they are being unfairly criticized for something they have nothing to do with.
“We took a pretty good beating out there,” Councilman Joel Servatius said after the meeting. “I feel like we were ambushed.”
Nobody got any answers, however, as council members quickly tabled the proposal.
Concern about the invocation was first raised this past February by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The organization sent a letter to the city of Oak Harbor demanding the end of prayers before council meetings.
“Local government should not be in the business of performing religious rituals, or exhorting all citizens, regardless of beliefs to participate in a Christian prayer, or even asking citizens to show deference or obeisance to the ritual,” Stephanie Schmitt, staff attorney for the group.
In response, Bill Hawkins, the city’s attorney at the time, and Renee Rucker, the mayor’s executive assistant, drafted an informal policy which is sent to everyone who’s invitied to give the opening prayer.
Those giving invocations are asked to be nondenominational, not invoke a particular faith and not to mention a deity.
The policy is not always followed as speakers regularly invoke the Lord’s name.
City Administrator Larry Cort said the administration asked interim city attorney, Grant Weed, to draft a formal policy for the council to adopt.
Cort said “the administration” decided to put the draft on the agenda once they received the document from Weed.
Dudley said that it’s his decision to keep the opening prayer since he sets the agenda.
“We should be praying all the time,” he said.
“We need all the help we can get.”
Dudley added, however, he takes the advice of the city’s legal counsel seriously and doesn’t want to create a liability for the taxpayers.
“I’m in favor of keeping the invocation,” he said. “I’m also in favor of ensuring the city of Oak Harbor doesn’t get sued.”
Cort said the proposed policy is virtually the same as one adopted by the city of Marysville, where Weed also serves as a city attorney.
“The conclusion of the prayer should embrace the collective prayerful thoughts of all present in an ecumenical manner rather than ‘in the name of ...’ a particular deity,” Oak Harbor’s draft policy stated.
The gist of the draft is the same as the informal policy in place in Oak Harbor for the past year.
Councilwoman Tara Hizon made a motion Tuesday to table the draft resolution; the council members weren’t able to discuss the issue because the rules governing Tuesday’s meeting prevent debate on such motions.
After the meeting, Hizon said she didn’t want to take up the discussion because of the length of the council’s agenda and because she wasn’t fully prepared.
Council members didn’t know anything about the proposal until they received their agenda packets Friday, she said.
“It came out of the blue,” Hizon said.
The council wasn’t responsible for the resolution, he said.
“There was not one council person’s thumb print on that.”
Dudley and Councilman Jim Campbell said they weren’t happy that the council balked on the issue. Only Campbell voted against the motion to table the proposal.
Dudley invited the people who attend the council meeting specifically to address the proposal to speak during the public comment period.
“We have a constitutional right to say and to pray to whatever God we deem worthy,” Oak Harbor resident James Stone said, “and to violate that would be to infringe upon our First Amendment rights.”
Several people quoted from a Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recent ruling, Rubin v City of Lancaster, which states that it is not unconstitutional for the city to open a council meeting with a prayer mentioning Jesus Christ.
Tim Geist, a pastor at Bible Baptist Church, said that the city attorney wouldn’t have written the policy had he first read the Ninth Circuit ruling.
Geist suggested that either the offending paragraph be deleted, or the entire matter tabled indefinitely “in the name of religious freedom.”
Oak Harbor resident Tom Smith asked the council to stop opening the meetings with a prayer to Jesus Christ.
Smith said he’s a member of the group Whidbey Island Freethinkers.
“I have no problem with the prayer itself as it is protected free speech,” he said. “But it becomes unconstitutional when you mention the name of a specific deity, in this case Jesus Christ.”
Smith noted that the Lancaster case is under appeal and that other courts of appeal have ruled differently.
It’s unclear if and when the proposed prayer policy will return to the council. Cort said he hopes to have a workshop at which the council can discuss the proposal with Weed, who was absent this week.