|Franklin County Officials Send Message to ACLU: "We'll Keep Praying"
The Franklin County Commission will continue to offer invocations before their meetings in defiance of a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union seeking to halt the practice. Members of the County Commission have voted unanimously to adopt a new policy establishing guidelines for invocations offered before their meetings which permit sectarian prayer.
The ACLU has filed suit in federal district court claiming that the invocations amount to an establishment of religion in violation of the First Amendment. The ACLU is demanding that the Franklin County Commission stop offering invocations altogether or limit the invocations to non-sectarian prayers. The issue arose as a result of Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer leading his fellow commissioners in prayer prior to their meetings at the Franklin County Government Center in Union.
"There are people who are okay with this and some who aren't, but we aren't reinventing the wheel," Griesheimer says. "We could simply ignore the ACLU, but that's not the right thing to to do."
The policy adopted by the Franklin County states that those offering invocations may not offer prayers that proselytize on behalf of their religion or disparage any other religious beliefs. These are the guidelines established by the United States Supreme Court in the 1983 case Marsh v. Chambers, in which the High Court upheld the practice of invocations before government meetings.
The ACLU is promoting a ruling by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals in July of last year in which that court decided that prayers of a sectarian nature were unconstitutional. The Court ruled that prayers offered by the Forsyth County Commission could not mention the name of Jesus, and must be generic in nature. The Court falsely claimed that Supreme Court precedent requires such restrictions.
However, other federal appeals courts have ruled otherwise. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a decision in 2008 declaring that sectarian prayers were consistent with Marsh v. Chambers. In yet another case just handed down by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals, that court determined that sectarian prayers could be offered in the Town of Greece, New York.
The Second Circuit declared that "a state-imposed requirement that all legislative prayers be non-denominational...begins to sound like the establishment of 'an official or civic religion,'" in violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause. The court went on to say: "Under the First Amendment, the government may not establish a vague theism as a state religion any more than it may establish a specific creed."
The concept of "non-sectarian prayer" is a contradiction in terms. Prayer by its very nature is a conversation with God. The argument that a person cannot mention the God one is addressing in a prayer is a non sequitur. A Christian is instructed by the word of God to pray in Jesus' name. It is curious, but not at all surprising, that those who insist that the name of Jesus be censored in prayers do not seem to have an objection to prayers which mention other "deities" by name.
The Franklin County Commission has wisely made the decision to engage the Alliance Defense Fund to represent them in the lawsuit. ADF is the leading legal interest firm in the country on Free Exercise cases. Brett Harvey of ADF will serve as lead counsel. The ACLU is seeking $1 in damages from the lawsuit, along with their attorney fees which could amount to thousands of dollars.
The case is in the hands of an able judge. U.S. Eastern District Judge Stephen Limbaugh, Jr will hear the lawsuit. Limbaugh is a former Missouri Supreme Court justice who was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush. Even if Limbaugh's decision were to be appealed to the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, prospects are very good that the appeals court would uphold the Franklin County prayer policy.
We applaud Commissioners John Griesheimer, Terry Wilson, and Ann Schroeder for standing up for the freedom of religion on behalf of the people of Franklin County. We encourage you to call the County Commission at (636) 583-6358 to thank them for courageously standing up to the ACLU. You can also contact the Commission by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
This episode illustrates the significance of the Missouri Prayer Amendment to be voted on by Missourians on August 7th. That proposed amendment to the Missouri Constitution makes clear that government bodies may invite ministers, clerygpersons, and other individuals to offer invocations before meetings of government bodies.