Freedom From Religious Group Objects To Prayer At County Commission Meetings

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A group called the Freedom From Religion Foundation is objecting to the practice of the Hamilton County Commission opening its meetings with prayer.

The group said, "What's the purpose of invoking Jesus' name before discussing whether to raise sewer and water rates or if Joe Blow qualifies for a variance to the zoning code?"

FFRF officials said a May 21 letter to the Hamilton County Commission "points out that the commission really has no business bringing a religious figure into the secular halls of government.

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A local complainant alerted FFRF, a national state-church watchdog, to the fact that prayers opening commission meetings are exclusively Christian and that every prayer in 2012 has included "in Jesus' name" or a variation thereof, it was stated.

"The prayers currently invoked at commission meetings impermissibly advance Christianity and lead a reasonable observer to believe that the commission is endorsing not only religion over nonreligion, but also Christianity over other faiths," wrote FFRF Staff Attorney Patrick Elliott.

"This practice inappropriately alienates non-Christians and nonbelievers. Their efforts to participate in public meetings are adversely affected by these types of prayers, which turn nonbelievers and non-Christians into political outsiders of their own community and government," he said 

The letter "cites legal precedents, along with aspects of court rulings that are commonly misunderstood by local governments."

"The prayers here flagrantly exceed the constraints of the 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, which carved out a narrow exception to the Establishment Clause for legislative prayer as a nod to history and custom," attorney Elliott said.

"The Marsh exception was confined to a situation involving a nonsectarian, nondenominational prayer, led by an officiant who had not been selected based upon any impermissible religious motive, and which was addressed to the body of legislators present, and to no one else," he said.

In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal in a North Carolina case in which Forsyth County's prayers to Jesus were found to be unconstitutional, he stated.

Attorney Elliott said, "I remind Hamilton County commissioners that the U.S. was the first nation to adopt a secular constitution, investing sovereignty in “We the People,” not a divine entity. "Significantly, there was no prayer during the Constitutional Convention. Surely if the founders did not need prayer to write the document that founded our nation, the commission can successfully conduct its business without prayer as well."


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