A lawsuit filed against Franklin County over prayers at commission meetings was dismissed this week because the plaintiff did not want to reveal her identity.
The lawsuit alleged that Presiding County Commissioner John Griesheimer led prayers mentioning Jesus and Lord at the beginning of county commission meetings.
“Obviously I’m elated,” Griesheimer said of the suit being dismissed. He did not want to offer any further comment beyond what was stated in a news release.
The news release quotes Griesheimer as saying, “the dismissal of the lawsuit was a great victory for the citizens of Franklin County and vindication that neither the county or he violated the Constitution in any manner.”
An anonymous plaintiff represented by the American Civil Liberties Union sued the county, charging that the prayers aligned the county with a specific religion.
Both sides have agreed to the suit being dismissed, said Anthony Rothert, ACLU attorney.
The plaintiff’s identity (Jane Doe) has not been made public, but it could have been had the case gone forward.
U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Limbaugh Jr. this month said the plaintiff could no longer proceed in the case anonymously.
The plaintiff had requested to remain secret, saying if her identity was revealed she would be subject to harassment and be “driven from the community.”
Rothert said the plaintiff wanted to drop the case to prevent her name from being revealed. The case would have continued if the plaintiff could have continued to be anonymous, Rothert said.
The plaintiff felt that there is hostility directed at people who stand up for the separation of church and state, Rothert said. The hostility is from government officials and certain members of the community, Rothert said.
Rothert noted that one attendee at a county commission meeting referred to the ACLU as the “anti-Christ.”
Many people have bought into the “myth” that the United States is a Christian nation and that there is nothing wrong with government officials promoting Christianity, Rothert said.
He added that there is mistaken information in the public that it is OK for government officials to promote religious views.
“It comes from a misunderstanding of the First Amendment,” Rothert said.
The ACLU could have appealed the judge’s ruling on revealing the plaintiff’s identity, but Rothert said both sides agreed that it was not worth the energy going forward.
Moreover, Rothert said he respects open courts and can understand the judge’s ruling requiring the plaintiff’s name to be revealed. But at the same time Rothert said he understands his client’s desire to remain secret.
Asked if he thinks the ACLU lost the case since it was dismissed, Rothert said it was a “mixed result.” While the county stopped the prayer practice that was challenged in the suit, the ACLU is disappointed that its client felt the need to dismiss the case rather than having her name revealed.
The ACLU also agreed to the case being dismissed since the county commission had already stopped the prayer practice that was being challenged.
After being sued, the county commission adopted a new invocation policy for meetings. That 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.
The lawsuit sought $1 in damages and attorneys fees.
The prayers violated the First and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the lawsuit alleged.
Court documents filed this week state that the parties agreed to the dismissal of the case.
The county was represented for no charge in the case by attorneys working with the Alliance Defense Fund.
“By using these attorneys the county was able to defend the lawsuit and force a dismissal without any cost to the taxpayers of Franklin County,” the county’s news release states. “The Franklin County Commission wants to publicly thank the attorneys from the Alliance Defense Fund who represented Franklin County and John Griesheimer in this matter.”