Prayer. Is it strictly personal, or may it be public? Should it be open to other faiths, or can the mayor, who sets the agenda for meetings, decide who prays and who doesn’t?
These are questions that unexpectedly emerged at last week’s Canby City Council meeting, after Rajan Zed, a Hindu cleric and globally recognized leader in interfaith relations from Nevada, approached Mayor Brian Hodson to give the invocation.
A little background. Prayer at public meetings has a long and complicated history in our country, which has a rich heritage of courageous men and women whose faith served as a fundamental guidepost and source of strength in their lives, but which also has a constitutional prohibition against the government favoring one religion over another.
At Canby City Council meetings, public prayer occurs under the heading of “Invocation.” Previously, this space before the Pledge of Allegiance was reserved for a simple moment of silence, but in 2015, Mayor Hodson replaced it with a Judeo-Christian-style prayer for guidance and wisdom, which he has typically delivered himself, occasionally calling on Council President Tim Dale to do so in his absence.
On Wednesday night, Hodson admitted he has declined requests to open the invocation up to other community members, including local clergy, believing it serves an important function to the Council and to him personally.
“The reason I have kept the invocation is because it helps center me, in terms of gearing up for these meetings,” Hodson said. “I believe in prayer. I believe we, as leaders, need that.”
Rajan Zed, an Indian immigrant and American citizen, is known for delivering the first Hindu prayer in the United States Senate in 2007. His invocation was interrupted by Christian protestors, who were arrested by Capitol police and later charged for disrupting Congress.
Since then, Zed has served as a guest chaplain and delivered invocations at the legislative houses in at least 10 states, including Oregon, and city councils across the country.
When Zed first approached the city about serving in this capacity in Canby, Hodson said he consulted with two other councilors and did his own research on Zed’s background. He ultimately declined Zed’s request, but did offer the opportunity to deliver his prayer during the time set aside for public comment.
After continued conversation with others and his own reflection, Hodson ultimately reconsidered and emailed Zed that he would be welcome to share the invocation. But it was the same day as the City Council meeting, and no one knew if the Hindu cleric would be able to make it on short notice.
Zed walked through the doors after the meeting had begun, coincidentally during the mayor’s own prayer, and was invited to take the podium. He recited lines of ancient Sanskrit from the Hindu holy books Rigveda, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, followed by their English translations.
Later, Councilor Sarah Spoon read from a prepared statement in which she shared some of Rajan Zed’s background. She also expressed her support for the invocation, but questioned the constitutionality of the city’s practice of excluding other faiths from participating.
“I support the existence of our official invocation, but outright object to the exclusion of other faiths to issue the official invocation at our city council meetings — which has been our practice,” Spoon said.
She concluded by saying she appreciates the mayor’s desire to center himself before accepting his seat of honor and council chambers, but pointed out that this is something that could be done privately. If, instead, he chooses to do it publicly, Spoon believes he must be willing to make the time more inclusive, or risk opening the city up to a constitutional challenge.
In an email Saturday, Mayor Hodson further clarified his position, pointing out that he has made changes to his invocation at councilors’ request, including removing overt references to Jesus Christ.
“This, the invocation, is meant as a way to offer encouragement to the council and our city,” he said. “I have kept it within my purview because I was afraid it would become what happened on Wednesday: argumentative and ill-natured. It has happened anyways and that is the most unfortunate part of it all.”