Part of a federal lawsuit over prayers at Franklin County Commission meetings has been dismissed.
The plaintiff, who is known only as Jane Doe, is no longer seeking relief for possible future violations. That’s because the county has stopped engaging in the prayers that are being challenged, the plaintiff’s lawyer says.
County attorney Mark Vincent said he takes this to mean that what the county is doing now is OK.
The plaintiff, who is represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, still seeks nominal damages of $1 for past violations of constitutional rights, attorneys’ fees and other relief deemed appropriate by the court.
“Now our case focuses on what was done in the past,” said ACLU attorney Anthony Rothert, adding that there is no longer a need for an injunction barring future activity.
It is unconstitutional for a member of the Franklin County Commission to lead a sectarian prayer during a meeting of the commission, the lawsuit states.
The lawsuit, which was filed in May 2012 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, alleges that prayers led by Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer violated the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit alleges that the prayers mentioned “Jesus” and “Lord.”
Vincent maintains that the county never did anything illegal.
The county is being represented by a few private attorneys for no charge, Vincent said.
The prayers represented allegiance to a particular religious faith instead of recognizing that Franklin County is made up of all kinds of believers, the lawsuit charges.
The county commission in June adopted a new invocation policy for meetings.
The policy states, “the commission wishes to express its respect for the diversity of religious practice and belief in the county.”
Under the policy, volunteers can sign up to give the invocation by contacting the secretary to the commission, and no questions will be asked about religious preference.
Rothert said the ACLU is going to see how the county’s new policy turns out. If it only results in Christian prayer, it presents a constitutional problem, Rothert said. But if a variety of religious views are expressed, it is probably constitutional, he added.
The next step is for the court to decide whether there should be a ruling in favor of the ACLU or if the case should be dismissed, Rothert said.
That ruling could be made in May or June, and if the judge is unable to make a ruling, a trial would be set for Aug. 19 in U.S. District Court in St. Louis, Rothert said.