To Pray or Not to Pray
City Council Leaves Option of Agenda Terminology to Mayor
June 19, 2014
By Lynne Bronstein
Is an invocation by any other name a prayer? Because some people regard an invocation as having a religious connotation, the City Council voted 3-2 on June 9 to allow the mayor to call the traditional City Manager’s opening address at meetings by whatever name suits her or him—“thought for the day,” “reflection,” et cetera.
The question on the meaning of “invocation” in the Council’s agenda was called by Mayor Meghan Sahli-Wells, who voted, along with council members Jim Clarke and Andrew Weissman, in favor of the mayor’s option. Members Mehaul O’ Leary and Jeff Cooper voted against the motion.
The “invocation” section of the council agenda follows the roll call and precedes the Pledge of Allegiance at council meetings. Attendees stand during the invocation and pledge and some council members have been seen bowing their heads during both rituals. Voiced by the city manager, the invocation is meant to be an inspirational opening to the meetings.
While some city managers in the past were known to strike a religious tone to the invocation, the speeches have become increasingly secular during the last six years. During Weissman’s term as mayor, he tended to refer to the remarks as “thought of the day” and City Manager John Nachbar has usually kept his “thought of the day” brief and focused on topical matters such as a recent election or a national news event.
Sahli-Wells asked for agendizing of the matter because, she said, when she assumed the position of mayor, she had to deal with the term “invocation” being on the printed agenda.
“It made me feel unwelcome,” was how she put it, adding that “reflection,” the term she prefers, has a more secular connotation.
Council members and speakers in public comment wrangled with the definition of “invocation.” Clarke drew some laughs when he read off a list of “synonyms” for “invocation” that included “abracadabra,”“hocus-pocus” and “hoodoo.” Definitions culled from Roget’s Thesaurus and Wikipedia mentioned the word as meaning, among other things,” the act or process of petitioning for help or support,” especially at the beginning of a religious service, “the act of asking for help or support especially from a god,” and “the act of mentioning or referring to someone or something in support of your ideas.”
Most of the speakers mentioned “separation of church and state” as their main concern when it came to what to call the agenda item. Former council member Gary Silbiger and council candidate Steven Murray were among those who supported a name change.
Representing the faith community were clergymen from St. Augustine’s Church and the King Fahad Mosque of Culver City, who pointed out that prayer is needed in today’s world and that an invocation is simply asking for God’s help in dealing with civic and political issues.
Advocates of invocation also referred to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in which the court, by a 5-4 vote, ruled in favor of local government bodies beginning meetings with religious prayers, even prayers favoring a particular faith. In the majority decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that: “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.”
O’ Leary agreed with the advocates for invocation, saying that the ritual “helps me” and that prayer is “part of our national heritage.”
Cooper said he had “no problem” with the use of the term “invocation” and wanted no change.
Clarke and Weissman thought they could go “either way” on the issue of changing the term. Weissman remembered that there had been a previous discussion of the invocation issue years earlier, at that time in respect to content of the invocation rather than the term used. Since that discussion, he recalled, the invocations had become more secular.
However, he noted that he had used the term “thought of the day” without a problem and thought that what term was used was at the discretion of whoever was mayor.
Because Sahli-Wells wanted to change what was on the printed agenda, the issue was put to a vote. With three votes in favor, future agendas will use the term “reflection” during the duration of Sahli-Wells’ term as mayor. Future mayors can use whatever term they want to.
In other proceedings, chief of finance operations Jeff Muir spoke briefly on the budget process. Normally, the budget would be presented at this time but the department wanted to add an extra step in order to make some corrections. The proposed budget will be presented on June 23.