It appears a Franklin County official will get the fight he’s been looking for.
Making good on an earlier threat, the American Civil Liberties Union sued Franklin County in federal court on Friday to prevent sectarian prayers from being said during county commission meetings.
The complaint was filed by the ACLU on behalf of an anonymous female resident, described in the complaint as Jane Doe, who has attended a number of commission meetings.
The lawsuit alleges the policy of Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer and other commissioners of beginning meetings with a prayer is a violation of the First and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well as Article I, Sections 6 and 7 of the Constitution of 1945 of the state of Missouri.
The ACLU sent the county a letter in March asking commissioners to stop the prayers after the organization received an anonymous complaint.
Griesheimer last month said he would prefer to fight the ACLU, but expressed concern over using taxpayers’ money in the litigation. At the time he suggested the possibility of creating a legal defense fund where county residents could contribute money voluntarily.
“I’d rather stand in front of a train and get run over if I believe I’m right,” he said.
The lawsuit asks a federal court to declare the commission’s acts as unconstitutional, issue a permanent injunction to prevent the commission from sponsoring prayers at the beginning of their meetings and pay $1 to the anonymous plaintiff for “deprivation of constitutional rights,” in addition to paying the ACLU’s attorney fees.
The complaint references portions of prayers said by Griesheimer on Nov. 29, Dec. 6, Dec. 13 and Dec. 20, 2011.
The county does not record audio or video from its meetings.
ACLU legal director Anthony Rothert told The Missourian previously that the complaint it received earlier this year included audio recordings of Griesheimer’s prayers.
“Plaintiff objects to and is offended by sectarian prayers at meetings of the Franklin County Commission because they endorse a particular religion and are an attempt by Franklin County and its officials to prefer one religious faith over others,” the lawsuit claims.
The suit also states that Griesheimer’s instruction to those at the meetings to bow their heads for prayer is offensive “because such instruction is coercive.”
Since receiving the March 21 warning letter from the ACLU, the commission reverted back to offering a moment of silence at the beginning of its meetings.
Griesheimer added moments of silence to the meetings after his election in 2010.
Last year Griesheimer began saying prayers instead, even though he previously said he’d prefer not to.
Some citizens, including James Goggan, Washington, and Eric Reichert, Villa Ridge, have continued to deliver prayers in recent weeks during the public comment portion of meetings.
The lawsuit claims the commission has “adopted a practice of having residents lead sectarian prayers during meetings.”
Griesheimer denied that claim Tuesday.
“We have no control over them,” he said of those citizens who have given prayers.
Last week commissioners began limiting public comments solely to agenda items, putting a halt to the public prayers
At that time Griesheimer noted the county was working on a policy regarding prayers at the meetings.
Halting the prayers all together is the preferred resolution, Rothert said previously.
“There are a lot of blurry lines when it comes to legislative prayer, but the person on the commission leading sectarian prayer is nowhere near a blurry line, it is far over it,” Rothert told The Missourian.
The lawsuit filed by Rothert claims commissioners have and continue to sponsor sectarian prayers “through both their actions and inactions.”
County to Respond
County Counselor Mark Vincent Tuesday said commissioners will need to meet in a closed meeting to discuss the pending litigation.
Vincent said he had not yet read through the lawsuit, but said it was “preemptive,” citing the policy he is drafting.
“The policy should address the concerns in the suit and will meet all federal and state laws, as well as the inherent values of the commission,” Vincent said.
Outside parties have offered to help the county, including Dee Wampler, a former Greene County prosecuting attorney.
Wampler wrote the county earlier this month, offering to meet with commissioners at no charge to offer assistance and congratulating Griesheimer “on your courageous stand regarding prayers before commission meetings.”
The lawsuit was filed in federal court in St. Louis. Commissioners were served Tuesday morning.
Griesheimer said he learned of the suit Monday night from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
He was critical of the paper, calling it ironic that The Post-Dispatch knew about the suit before the county did. The newspaper does not cover Franklin County Commission meetings.