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Akron City Council tries to make prayers before meetings more inclusive after facing criticism

Parinita Singh speaks to council
Akron City Council
Akron resident Parinita Singh speaks during a city council meeting on May 9, 2022 to express concerns that opening meetings with a Christian prayer excludes much of Akron's diverse population.

After being criticized recently for opening its meetings with a Christian prayer, Akron City Council has started a new tradition that members hope will better reflect the city’s diverse population.

Each month, a different council member will be in charge of coordinating diverse prayers and invocations, said Council President Margo Sommerville, who represents Ward 3.

“It just kind of made sense, you know, to allow council members a month. They know their communities,” Sommerville said. “They know what faiths and religious institutions are in their communities. Just to reach out to them and see if those people will be willing to come forward and lead prayer on Monday night.”

The change comes after council drew criticism for typically beginning its meetings with a Christian prayer. The prayer was often given by a member of a local church or, if no one was available, a council member themselves, Sommerville said.

That didn’t sit right with Parinita Singh, a Goodyear employee who lives in Akron’s Highland Square neighborhood. She was especially bothered during the May 2 meeting, which fell on the Muslim holiday, Eid.

“Council never once acknowledged the fact that it was Eid, and they still had a Christian prayer,” Singh said. “There’s…people that live in Akron who are Muslim who might have felt discouraged by council not addressing that this was this very important, very sacred national holiday being celebrated by these this large group of people.”

Singh was raised Sikh but no longer practices the religion. Other communities in Akron, such as immigrants, may not be Christian and could feel excluded by council’s usual Christian prayers, she added.

Singh decided to speak up about her concerns during a council meeting last month.

“There is nothing wrong with people practicing their own religion, and while I feel there should be no prayer at all in council, I think there should be more of an effort to not center every single week to Christianity,” Singh said during council’s May 9 meeting.

You can view Singh's full comments, which start at 29:34, in the video below.

Representatives from any religion are welcome to give the invocation, Sommerville said, but she admitted that for the last several years, the prayers have been predominantly Christian. The main reason, she said, is that it is often difficult to have someone lined up for every meeting due to scheduling conflicts.

Singh’s comments inspired Sommerville to be “more intentional” in opening the meetings with diverse prayers, she said, and she instated the new tradition last week.

Ward 8 Councilman Shammas Malik volunteered for the month of June. He asked local health equity organizer Beth Vild, who led last week’s meeting with a secular prayer focused on nature.

“Dear great creator, bless the ecosystem of Akron,” Vild said in the June 6 meeting. “May we see each other’s roles and respect that it takes each role to create a forest.”

View last week's invocation in the video below.

National foundation calls for prayers to end

Singh’s remarks to city council caught national attention.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national organization that advocates for the separation of church and state, sent a letter to Council President Sommerville in May calling on city council to stop the prayers.

“This ostentatiously Christian practice must end,” the foundation’s co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a press release. “It presumes to speak for the religious belief of the entire population of the city of Akron — a presumption that is quite certainly false.”

Karen Heineman, a legal fellow at the foundation who wrote the letter, said courts have ruled it is not illegal to pray before government meetings in most cases.

In 2014, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that government bodies can hold prayers as long as they do not discriminate against citizens or attempt to establish a religion.

However, praying before meetings can exclude and even offend the public being served, Heineman said.

“Why is there any need for religion in a city council meeting?” she said. “We feel that that's really something that should be reserved to, kind of, private lives, and once you kind of give that opening and bring religion into these meetings, then you start to get into the problems like we had here, where, okay, now we're just representing Christians.”

Other Northeast Ohio municipalities vary with invocations. Canton City Council’s is also typically a Christian prayer, while Cleveland City Council simply holds a moment of silence before meetings.

While Heineman thinks Akron’s new change is a step toward having equal representation of religions, she said it’s important to remember that some constituents aren’t religious at all.

“I like the idea that they are taking a look at it, kind of visiting this issue, there are going to be attempts to at least be more diverse,” Heineman said. "I would still go back to the question of why this is even necessary, why the Pledge of Allegiance alone wouldn't be sufficient to start a city council meeting.”

Sommerville, on the other hand, said prayer is a longstanding tradition in Akron, and most people want to start the meetings with it.

“Religion, faith, spirituality [are] important. You know, particularly when we look at everything that is happening across the country,” Sommerville said. “I think council members consistently across the board feel that it's important that we open up with some form of positivity, some form of encouragement and motivation to continue to do the work that we do, which is often times very challenging, very stressful.”

The only non-Christian council member, Councilman Malik, said he is looking forward to the change.

“There’s the tradition that we have. It means a great deal to a lot of people. And at the same time, we want to make sure that we're being as inclusive as we can. I think that this is a good balance,” Malik said.

Singh, the resident who started it all, said while she still doesn’t think there should be a prayer, this is a good step to being more inclusive.

“I think it's a great idea to have different council people pick different community leaders to come in and guide us through our beliefs, or ground us, to have us reflect and make sure that in council, as council people and as public constituents that are coming in, are able to address things with an open mind," she said.

Singh created a spreadsheet with different religious organizations from throughout the city and shared the information with council, she added.

“I understand the council has so many other things that they need to address. Like this is not as big an issue,” Singh said. “So, I was happy to help out wherever I could to make sure that, you know, they did follow through with some of the things that they had said.”

The June 13 meeting once again began with a Christian prayer. At council’s next meeting in two weeks, a Buddhist prayer is planned, Malik said.

Anna Huntsman covers Akron, Canton and surrounding communities for Ideastream Public Media.