ACLU Backs Off Challenge to Prayer
in Franklin County
The American Civil Liberties Union has withdrawn legal action seeking to stop the Franklin County Commission from offering invocations before their meetings. The ACLU had filed suit in federal district court last summer claiming that prayers offered prior to meetings of the Franklin County governing body amounted to an establishment of religion.
The ACLU initiated the lawsuit after sending a letter to the County Commission demanding that the commissioners halt the practice of offering invocations altogether, or failing to do so, limit the practice to "non-sectarian" prayers. The ACLU claimed that the prayers offered were "distinctly Christian," and were offensive to an anonymous citizen identified only as "Jane Doe."
Instead of backing down, the Franklin County Commission adopted a policy formalizing the procedures for prayer before Commission meetings. The new guidelines reflected recommendations from the Alliance Defending Freedom, the nation's leading Christian legal defense firm.
Under that policy, ministers from the community and other citizens may sign up to offer invocations. Prayers may be offered according to the beliefs and traditions of the person offering the prayer. No person leading prayer may use the occasion to proselytize on behalf of their own faith or disparage any other faith.
The action by the ACLU to suspend their central legal challenge makes it clear that they realize the policy adopted by the Franklin County Commission is constitutional. The ACLU has chosen to abandon their posture that the name of Jesus be banned from future invocations offered at the county commission chambers in Union.
The ACLU is maintaining the portion of their lawsuit challenging the invocation practices of the Franklin County Commission prior to the adoption of the policy. Franklin County Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer had been leading prayer prior to the County Commission meetings. The ACLU contends that having an elected official share an invocation constitutes an unconstitutional governmental entanglement with religion.
"Now our case focuses on what was done in the past," says ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert. The ACLU is seeking a nominal $1 in damages for alleged prior violations of constitutional rights, and more significantly, the payment of their attorneys' fees.
The ACLU retreat signals that they know they are pursuing a long-shot legal challenge. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the practice of government invocations in 1983 in a case known as Marsh v. Chambers. The majority of federal appeals courts rulings since that decision have vindicated the practice so long as invocations are not used to "proselytize" or to denigrate other faiths. Those courts have reaffirmed that the government cannot otherwise prescribe or regulate the content of prayers offered by others.
Missouri voters recently voiced their opinion on the subject of government invocations in unambiguous terms. Voters last August decisively approved Amendment 2, commonly referred to as the Missouri Prayer Amendment. The proposition passed with a stunning 83 percent of the vote.
That state constitutional amendment declared that the Missouri Legislature and local governments "may extend to ministers, clergypersons, and other individuals the privilege to offer invocations or other prayers at meetings or sessions of the General Assembly or other governing bodies."
Amendment 2 also states that citizens and elected officials "shall have the right to pray on government premises and public property so long as such prayers abide within the same parameters placed upon any other free speech under similar circumstances." That is exactly what Commissioner Griesheimer was doing, and has the First Amendment right to do.
The decision by the ACLU to hollow out the heart of their lawsuit is a huge victory for religious freedom in our state. Had the ACLU been somehow successful in their legal strategy, Christian prayers offered in the name of Jesus would have been prohibited in government settings. The only prayers which would have been permissible would have been "non-sectarian" prayers expressed in a generic fashion to a generic God. Such pronouncements are not prayers at all, but are instead the establishment of a "civic religion," which is banned under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
We continue to commend Commissioner Griesheimer, and former Commissioners Terry Wilson and Ann Schroeder for standing up to the intimidation tactics of the ACLU on behalf of their constituents. Please be praying for Commissioner Griesheimer and new Commisioners Tim Brinker and Mike Schatz as they work to defend the religious liberties of Franklin County residents, and all Missourians.
Please be praying as well for the lawyers who are protecting our free exercise rights in this case: Brett Harvey of the Alliance Defending Freedom, and St. Louis attorney Tim Belz.