Franklin County Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer this week said the commission plans to fight a lawsuit filed against the county over the commission’s use of public prayers, but was quick to caution about just what that means.
“We did decide to fight the lawsuit, but that’s a bit of a misnomer,” Griesheimer said during Tuesday’s public commission meeting. “We can do two things, cut and run and say forgive us, we sinned, or fight the lawsuit.”
Griesheimer said an invocation policy, adopted by Counselor Mark Vincent, allows the county to do just that.
“There will be people who are okay with this and some who aren’t, but we aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Griesheimer said. “We could simply ignore (the ACLU), but that’s not the right thing to do.”
He said the policy, which will likely be approved next week, will “outline how and who will do invocations before each meeting.”
A draft of that policy was made available to the public Tuesday morning.
The policy states that no invocation shall be offered at commission meetings except in accordance with the policy and notes that no person attending the meetings shall be required to participate in any invocation in any way “including being asked by any member of the commission or any employee of the county to rise or bow their heads while the invocation is being offered.”
The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the county last month in federal court on behalf of an anonymous female county resident who said the commission’s prayers, most often said by Griesheimer, were offensive and a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
One of the plaintiff’s claims specifically dealt with requests from Griesheimer for meeting attendees to bow their heads.
The county’s invocation policy will allow volunteers from the county to give invocations, with each speaker signing up for the opportunity to present the invocation “no earlier than the first of the proceeding month nor later than the 15th of the month preceding the month in which the volunteer desires to speak.”
Volunteers will not be asked for any information regarding their religious preference, the policy states, and the commission will not review the content of an invocation in advance.
Volunteers will need to provide contact information.
In the event that more than one person wishes to provide an invocation on a given day, names will be selected by lot.
Each individual will only be allowed to give the prayer or invocation once a month, and not at consecutive meetings.
Speakers should not proselytize “or make any effort to convert anyone present to a particular faith and should not disparage any faith,” the policy states. Those doing so will be banned from giving future invocations.
Invocations will be limited to two minutes and the presiding commissioner of each meeting shall have the authority to interrupt or stop a speaker if the speaker is violating the policy.
The practice also may be halted altogether if the commission decides to do so.
Help From Nonprofit
Vincent said the county has enlisted the help of the Alliance Defense Fund, which has offered to represent the county in court for free.
The fund is a Christian nonprofit organization with ties to Focus on the Family, Crown Financial Ministries, Campus Crusade for Christ and other conservative groups.
Vincent began drafting a policy after the county received a letter from the ACLU in March.
“It is critical to note we were moving forward with this policy before the lawsuit was filed,” he said.
The lawsuit claims the county simply ignored the ACLU’s letter, however.
Vincent said the policy complies with one of the only cases applicable to the U.S. 8th Circuit, Marsh v. Nebraska, as well as “bellwether” cases in the U.S. 11th Circuit, which has been more active in dealing with cases regarding prayer and governmental meetings.
“We want to be aligned behind the circuits that are behind the right to have invocations,” Vincent said.
He noted the policy, once adopted, will take time to implement.
Despite halting the prayers and public comments, one citizen this week decided he had to be heard.
Frank Rice, Union, spoke into a microphone at the commission meeting Tuesday following a moment of silence.
After asking if he could make a comment and being told no, Rice spoke anyway, saying that the “blood of the anti-Christ flows through the ACLU.”
Rice was repeatedly asked to sit down during the outburst but was not forced to leave the meeting.
Prior to the meeting, Rice was seen checking the microphone, indicating his outburst was planned.
At the conclusion of the moment of silence, he and others in the commission meeting audience said “in Jesus’ name we pray, amen.”