Like most of our readers, we’re glad the ACLU dismissed its lawsuit against Franklin County last week.
The ACLU filed the complaint in federal court last year on behalf of an anonymous plaintiff who objected to the county commission’s practice of saying prayers before its meetings.
Specifically, the objection was that the prayers aligned the county with a specific religion — Christianity.
Technically speaking, both parties in the case agreed to the dismissal. But when the judge in the case eventually ruled that the identity of the plaintiff could be revealed, she called it quits.
Her attorney said that she would have pursued the case had she been able to remain anonymous but was afraid she would be harassed if her name was revealed.
Perhaps those fears are legitimate. There’s no doubt the majority of people in Franklin County are of the Christian faith and don’t have an issue with saying a prayer before a public meeting. Judging by the letters to the editor we have received, it’s also true that many local residents don’t have a high regard for the ACLU.
Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer called the dismissal of the lawsuit a great victory for the citizens of Franklin County. That is a bit of hyperbole.
The suit was a distraction for the county and a waste of time to be sure. It could also be characterized as vindictive.
So the fact that the lawsuit is over is welcome news. The commission can get back to running the county. There’s plenty of work to do.
But the reality is that the lawsuit also was something that could have been avoided in the first place. The commission walked into this punch. For decades, the commission began its meetings without offering a prayer and it got along just fine.
The fact of the matter is that the commission was baited into introducing prayers before its meeting by a longtime critic who was using the issue as a campaign prop. Moreover, the commission fumbled the issue by not having a firm policy in place when it began the practice.
Regardless, the commission knew or should have known it was inviting a lawsuit if it started offering prayers. Why? Because governmental entities around the country are sued every week over the very same issue.
In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments later this year in a case out of New York with remarkably similar facts to the one in Franklin County.
When the same court ruled that legislative prayers were constitutional 30 years ago, the justices sent a convoluted message to city councils, county commissions and other government bodies: You may open your sessions with prayer but you can’t exploit the prayer opportunity “to proselytize or advance anyone, or disparage any other faith or belief.”
As one court observer noted, since nobody can agree on what that means, Americans have spent the last three decades debating and litigating who gets to pray — and what they can say — without running afoul of the court’s murky guidance.
The problem arises when the majority or all of the prayers express one’s faith or belief. That is one of the issues before the Supreme Court and is what is happening here in Franklin County each week. All but one of the prayers that have been offered are of Christian origin.
Jane Doe may have folded her tent because she can’t stand the heat, but there will be others willing to stand in the light and take the commission on in this very complex and confusing issue.
The commission should have seen this one coming.