Fight over government prayer heats up

May. 11, 2013 @ 03:36 PM

The Union County Board of Commissioners received a second letter warning it to end prayer before meetings.

The Wisconsin-based organization Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the first letter Feb. 20 warning commissioners that Christian prayer mentioning Jesus violated the First Amendment. It went on to cite a recent court ruling against the Forsyth County Board of Commissioners which refused to end sectarian prayer at meetings.

The FFRF got involved after a Union County resident complained about the prayers, Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott said.

"Since we sent the last letter, we've heard from other people in the county who agree," Elliott said.

The second letter dated May 3 stated that commissioners can pray freely outside the formal meetings, but specifically Christian prayers impose commissioners' religious views on county residents.

"We looked into their practices and their prayers continue to be sectarian in nature," Elliott. "That's in direct violation of the U.S. Constitution."

The FFRF also states Commissioner Todd Johnson "abused" the prayer period before the March 4 meeting to voice his opinions of free speech.

"As you are aware," the letter states, "the Fourth Circut Court of Appeals has held that sectarian invocations are unconstitutional. It is troubling that the Board has willfully continued its illegal practice."

Though the FFRF has not yet filed a lawsuit, Elliot said it is still a possibility.

"Just because we don't have a suit underway tomorrow doesn't mean we've let this go," he said.

If the FFRF sues Union County, the losing side pays for all court costs. The amount depends on how long the suit wears on. How far commissioners are willing to fight the FFRF request determines the amount of legal fees the suit accumulates.

Meanwhile, county residents encourage commissioners to continue prayer. Mineral Springs Councilwoman Janet Critz praised the board for not complying with the FFRF letter. The country was founded on Christian religion, she said, and it is part of our tradition. She asked them to fight to keep prayer.

Local churches, elected leaders and residents called and wrote about their support for Christian prayer. But just because most people in the county does not object to the prayer, it does not make it legal, Elliott said.

"Thankfully, a majority of citizens can't use the government to institute their religion," Elliott states in the letter. "This is a matter of constitutional law, not 'majority rule.' It is immaterial how many County residents would like the Board to continue sectarian prayers. The courts have continually reaffirmed that the rights of minorities and freedom on conscience are protected by the Constitution."

The American Civil Liberties Union recently filed suit against the Rowan County Board of Commissioners when the board refused to end sectarian prayers opening public meetings.

By continuing to pray at meetings, the commissioners put the county at risk for similar legal action.

"This is not a matter of 'freedom of speech,' rather it is a matter of the government complying with the Establishment Clause," the letter states. "Prayers before government meeting are 'government speech' and have been treated that way by every court that has addressed the issue."

The letter asks for a response from the county stating what it plans to do to remedy the situation.

During the board's May 6 meeting, Commissioner Frank Aikmus gave an invocation ending "in the name of the most holy."

Calls to Chairman Jerry Simpson were not returned by press time.