Why does Akron City Council open with a prayer? Resident asks for diversity, inclusivity

·4 min read
Parinita Singh stands outside of Akron City Hall. Singh would like to see inclusivity in Akron City Council prayers or to do away with them entirely.
Parinita Singh stands outside of Akron City Hall. Singh would like to see inclusivity in Akron City Council prayers or to do away with them entirely.

The Akron City Council meeting on May 2 opened the way it typically does: with a prayer in Jesus Christ’s name.

That didn’t sit right with Parinita Singh, a 31-year-old engineer at Goodyear living in Highland Square.

It was Eid al-Fitr, a major holiday in the Islam religion marking an end of the month-long dawn-to-sunset fasting of Ramadan.

"Not once did council acknowledge the holiday," Singh said May 9 during council's public comment period. "Why wasn’t a Muslim prayer leader — an imam — invited to pray in honor of Eid?"

Singh is not Muslim. Though she was raised in Sikhism, she no longer practices any religion. Attending City Council meetings makes her uncomfortable because of the opening prayer, which typically features language affiliated with Christianity.

“Every council meeting that I’ve ever attended has almost exclusively featured a Christian prayer,” she said. “It makes me feel unwelcome and out of place. It should not feel that way during a public meeting.”

Her comment begin around 29:30 into the video:

Singh argued that City Council should do away with the prayer altogether. She said there is “nothing wrong” with people practicing their own religion, but a government meeting is not the time nor place.

But if council is going to continue to open each meeting with a prayer, she said at the very least, they should acknowledge other religions representative of Akron’s diverse population.

Why does City Council open with a prayer?

In 1952 Akron City Council began opening each meeting with the Lord’s Prayer. Council members scrapped the more than half-century-long tradition in 2007 after receiving a lawsuit threat from attorneys representing a Washington, D.C.-based organization advocating for separation of church and state.

City Council sought ministers to assist with coming up with a new prayer to open meetings. In addition, they began reciting the prayer outside council chambers prior to meetings, a tradition that ended in 2015.

“It’s been a tradition for longer than I’ve even been alive,” said City Council President and Ward 3 representative Margo Sommerville.

Though Singh invoked constitutional language of separating church and state in her arguments, praying before meetings is technically legal. A 2014 Supreme Court ruling narrowly upheld the allowance of offering prayers to open government meetings, even if those prayers are overwhelmingly Christian.

Why are most of the prayers Christian?

Sommerville said that over the years, City Council has invited Jewish rabbis, Muslim imams and more to lead the prayer, but finding volunteers each week became “increasingly difficult.”

“We’ve always needed help to find faith leaders to volunteer their time to come to council to open up with prayer,” Somerville said. “But it got to a point where it was difficult for council to schedule any faith leaders, whether they were Christian or any religion.”

So council formed a partnership with Love Akron, a Christian organization working in the city to unify “colors, cultures and congregations,” according to their website. Love Akron then took on the responsibilities of scheduling volunteer prayer leaders, whose religion typically reflected that of the organization.

‘We want to be more inclusive’

Though Sommerville said council is unlikely to do away with a prayer, she said members want to find a way to be more inclusive following Singh’s comments.

“We pride ourselves that we are a welcoming city; we are celebrating the growth,” she said, acknowledging a booming population of refugees and immigrants in the North Hill neighborhood. “We want everyone to feel welcome when they come and to participate in Akron City Council meetings.”

She said council will be more “intentional” in reaching out to diverse areas of Akron and likely assign council members to help with the effort.

“Christianity is not the sole religion of the council and definitely not of Akron,” Singh said in her public comments.

Ward 8 Councilman Shammas Malik, who is Muslim, said that he thinks council should ensure the prayer before meetings represents the "rich variety of beliefs and perspectives in Akron."

"Council chambers should be an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone who enters this public space," he said.

Retired Rev. John Beaty told the Beacon Journal he is hopeful Akron implements more diverse prayers, saying he has been “kind of horrified” for some time over the constant use of Christian language.

“It bothers me tremendously that we only have Christians pray as if this is a Christian nation,” said Beaty, who regularly attends council meetings. “It is a multiple religious nation. It is a multiple immigrant nation. We need to reflect and the City Council needs to reflect the rich diversity of our community.”

Sommerville urged any community faith leader who is interested in leading a prayer to reach out to council’s clerk, Sara Biviano, at sbiviano@akronohio.gov or 330-375-2256.

Reporter Abbey Marshall is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. Learn more at reportforamerica.org. Contact her at at amarshall1@gannett.com.

This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Akron City Council criticized for offering mostly Christian prayers