Commissioners warned about public prayer at meetings

Mar. 06, 2013 @ 11:56 AM

A Wisconsin foundation sent a cease and desist letter the Union County Board of Commissioners, objecting to Christian prayers opening official meetings.

In a Feb. 20 letter, the Freedom From Religion Foundation stated the commission violated separation of church and state by beginning meetings with prayers that mention Jesus or other Christian references.

“First and foremost, prayer at government meetings is unnecessary, inappropriate and divisive,” FFRF attorney Patrick Elliott wrote. “Commissioners are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time.”

Elliott went on to state that the commission oversteps its authority to ask meeting attendees to pray.

“These citizens should not be made to feel offended or excluded because they local government they support with their taxes imposes religious ritual at civil government meetings,” Elliott wrote.

The foundation got involved after a Union County resident complained to them that the Christian prayers were unconstitutional, Elliott said Tuesday. Many governments still have sectarian prayers at meetings. But continued prayer goes against a 2011 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals Fourth Circuit ruling that Forsyth County commissioners violated the Constitution when hold Christian prayers at their meetings.

“I think they need to follow what the law actually says, not their idea of what the law should say,” Elliott said.

The letter is not an attack on personal faith, Elliott said. Rather, it is a response to a complaint that the separation between religion and government was violated. Several recent court rulings clarified that sectarian prayer at meetings is unconstitutional. The FFRF is just one organization willing to challenge governments that choose to ignore those rulings, he said.

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Attorneys with the FFRF await a response from Union County officials, Elliott said. If county officials refuse and continue with sectarian prayer, Elliott said the organization is willing to file a suit based on the resident’s complaint.

“Constitutional rights aren’t rights by a majority vote,” Elliott said. “Most people will say we’re all Christian here so why can’t we just have a Christian prayer. It’s because the Constitution outlines the rights of all people, and you can’t get around that by saying that a majority of don’t have a problem with something.”

Union County Commissioner Chairman Jerry Simpson said the board knows about the letter, but has not made any official decisions or statements as an elected body.

In his personal opinion, Simpson said he did not believe it was a fair request.

“The Constitution sets forth a separation of church and state and says the government will not make any laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the exercise of religion. But I guess the biggest thing that bothers me about it is that I was elected by the people of Union County, not the people of Wisconsin,” Simpson said. “I’ve had people come up to me to thank me for the prayers at meetings. They elected me to represent them and so far, I think I’ve done that.”