Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer said a ruling this week from the U.S. Supreme Court vindicates the county’s invocation policy.
Prayer at government meetings has been an issue locally as the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Franklin County Commission over its invocation practices. The case against Franklin County has since been dismissed.
In a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that the town of Greece, N.Y., did not violate the U.S. Constitution by having Christian prayers at meetings.
The town opened the prayers to all creeds, but nearly all of the prayer-givers were Christians. Some residents said this violated the First Amendment Establishment Clause by preferring Christians over other prayer-givers.
But the court ruled that the town welcomed prayer from other beliefs and was not required to search beyond its borders to find non-Christian prayer-givers.
The ACLU suit against Franklin County was dismissed last year after a judge ruled that the anonymous plaintiff, “Jane Doe,” had to reveal herself. The plaintiff did not want to reveal herself in fear of being “driven from the community,” court records stated.
The lawsuit alleged that Griesheimer led prayers mentioning Jesus and Lord at the beginning of county commission meetings.
The Supreme Court’s ruling in the New York case demonstrates that the county’s method of giving prayers prior to the adoption of the new prayer policy was wrong, the ACLU says.
“Today’s decision from the Supreme Court reaffirms that Franklin County’s previous prayer policy was unconstitutional,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. “The county was wise to abandon it in response to our lawsuit, and we are pleased to hear that they will not attempt to return to the previous policy.”
Prior to the county adopting a new policy, prayers were led by a commissioner and were always Christian, said Diane Balogh, ACLU spokeswoman. The government does not get to decide which religion to promote, Balogh added.
But County Counselor Mark Vincent said the Supreme Court’s decision showed that the county was correct when Griesheimer was leading the prayers. He noted that the Supreme Court’s decision was based on a previous Supreme Court case that involved Christian prayers in the Nebraska Legislature.
In that case, the Legislature paid a chaplain who gave Christian prayers, Vincent said. That is similar to what the commission was doing previously when a publicly paid commissioner gave the prayers, Vincent added.
Griesheimer said the county plans to keep using the new policy. The county’s invocation policy states that Franklin County respects religious diversity. Under the policy, members of the Franklin County community can sign up to give the invocation at commission meetings, and no questions will be asked regarding religious preference.
Vincent explained that the Supreme Court’s ruling means that prayers that reference certain religious beliefs in government meetings are allowed as long as there is no condemnation or promotion of a certain belief.
Vincent said Franklin County’s invocation policy is very good, adding, “We’re on very solid ground and Franklin County’s been vindicated.”