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Councilmember Kennedy Calls for Prayer at Council Sessions during Coronavirus Crisis

‘It’s critically important for us to invoke a spiritual component’

Published on Monday, April 13, 2020 | 4:00 am

The city canceled Monday’s regular council meeting. But if the session had gone off, there’s a chance it would have begun with a prayer – as might the next council meeting and others beyond that during the coronavirus crisis.

At least that’s the hope of Council Member John J. Kennedy.

“I think it’s appropriate, and I understand the limitations of the First Amendment, but somehow the state does it and somehow our federal government does it, and in times like these, we need to invoke anyone who can help us get through it,’’ Kennedy told Pasadena Now last week.

“It’s critically important for us to invoke a spiritual component of this situation.’’

Kennedy first brought up the prayer issue at the start of last Monday’s council meeting, when the panel met by teleconference in deference to the city’s “Safer at Home” restrictions during the COVID-19 crisis.

Just as Mayor Terry Tornek asked City Attorney Michele Bagneris to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, Kennedy, who represents District 3, interjected with a question.

“Would it be appropriate that, at our next City Council meeting, that we invite someone to pray for our city, our state and our nation in not violating the First Amendment rights of others, given that the state legislature and the United States legislature does begin their meetings in this unprecedented situation that we are dealing with in America?’’ Kennedy said.

“I know that many of my constituents would love to see us invoke a higher power to help us get through this as a city, as a council, as a community.’’

Of course, prayers and other religious demonstrations are sensitive subjects at government events, given the historic separation of church and state. But Kennedy was correct in pointing out the U.S. House and Senate, as well as both houses of the state legislature, regularly have a prayer element during sessions.

Indeed, all the houses of the federal and state legislatures have their own chaplains. And as recently as last month, a day before St. Patrick’s Day, the California Senate’s chaplain, Sister Michelle Gorman, offered up these words: “While we can’t celebrate St. Patrick this year with our usual festivities, we pray today for his intercession to help us be people of hope as we navigate the challenges of the coronavirus.’’

The City Council does not typically begin meetings with a prayer, but there is precedent at City Hall for a clergyperson to say a few words.

According to City Council minutes, at the council’s organizational meeting of May 1, 2017, the Rev. Dr. Matthew Colwell, pastor of the Knox Presbyterian Church, led the invocation; at the organizational meeting of May 4, 2015, when Tornek took the oath of office as mayor for the first time, Rabbi Marvin Gross led the invocation.

Those organizational meetings are special occasions at City Hall, of course. But Kennedy says this is a special time in the city, the nation and the world – and that a prayer to start council meetings is “necessary.”

“We need as much help as we can get — this thing is super-serious,’’ Kennedy said. “My view is that, if there’s an objection by any one council member, we probably would not do it. But I’m hoping that will not be the case.’’

After Kennedy first raised the issue at last week’s council tele-meeting, Tornek said, “Thank you for that suggestion, John. We’ll take that up at the end of the meeting.’’

But as council members proceeded with the day’s agenda and moved into closed session – a reverse of their normal schedule, which usually begins with a closed session – the prayer matter got lost in a flurry of business.

“We normally go from closed session to open session, so he [Tornek] may have forgot, I certainly forgot,’’ Kennedy said.

“I think we’re somewhat – I won’t say exhausted, but there’s just so much other material that we have to delve into.’’

Tornek, asked by Pasadena Now about his thoughts on the prayer issue, replied with a brief email on Friday that said: “Under review. No meeting this week.”

By its regular schedule, the council would next meet on Monday, April 20. There’s no agenda for that meeting yet – typically, agendas are posted on the Thursday or Friday before the scheduled session. The meeting might also be canceled, though that would seem unlikely.

Kennedy hopes that next meeting, whenever it takes place, will have a prayer on its agenda.

“I would not do the prayer myself; we would invite someone to do a universal prayer,’’ he said. “At least that’s my thinking.

“The bottom line is, in times like these, in great emergency, we have to bind together, and whether you have a belief in a higher power or not … but those who do, we need to be able to invoke that higher power to help us focus our minds to solving the issues that are decimating us in terms of the number of deaths.’’

Kennedy said he would not himself invoke a prayer if there was not unanimity among council members for having a clergyperson say some words in a sanctioned capacity.

“I’m not the guy to be disruptive on that issue ’cause it’s so touchy for some,’’ he said. “And I know that there are people that have no belief in a higher power.’’

But he added, “I see it as a net positive, even for those who do not want to participate, because they’re not required to participate.’’

“The hope is to have a universal prayer that many people, or most people I should say, can embrace,’’ Kennedy said.

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