POMEROY — The Meigs County Commissioners Office is alleged to have committed “numerous constitutional infractions” according to a non-profit organization.
A letter was received both in email and mail delivery this week by the commissioners from The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). According to the organization’s website, its purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between church and state, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism. This is not the first time the organization has been involved in action in the region, as FFRF (along with the ACLU) was responsible for the 2013 case involving the removal of a portrait of Jesus in a Jackson County, Ohio, school building. They are also involved in a lawsuit currently recating the reciting of the Lord’s Prayer at Parkersburg City Council meetings.
The letter dated Aug. 24, states that “A concerned Meigs County resident has reported that each year, the Meigs County Commission issues a National Day of Prayer proclamation and holds a prayer ceremony on the courthouse steps. We understand that the Meigs County Commissioner’s Office also leads prayer before Commission meetings.”
“We also understand that the Meigs County Commission regularly promotes religion on its official Facebook page,” the letter continues, citing four references to scripture or other items posted in the past year. The letter is signed by Christopher Line, who is identified as a Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow for Freedom From Religion Foundation.
Sitting down with the Sentinel on Wednesday afternoon, Commissioners Randy Smith and Tim Ihle addressed the letter.
Ihle spoke specifically regarding the National Day of Prayer event and the proclamation for the event.
The National Day of Prayer event is not sponsored by the commissioners or any of the county officials, and is held on the steps as are other events throughout the year, stated Ihle. He noted that other groups and organizations hold events at the courthouse, as has been done in the past by the community choir, Memorial Day remembrance ceremonies or the Sternwheel opening ceremony among others. The National Day of Prayer committee does not receive any funding from the county for the annual event.
Additionally, the proclamation approved each year by the commissioners is the same proclamation (fill in the county or organization name) as those approved by numerous other local and national agencies all the way up to the White House.
Smith said that the courthouse is the public’s house and that any organization or individual can request to use the area for public events as the National Day of Prayer committee does each year.
While one of the commissioners will often participate, as schedule allows, it is on their own time and at their own discretion, noted Ihle. As the commissioners are not hourly employees or even considered county employees, they are not “on the taxpayers dime” for events such as National Day of Prayer or when praying in the commissioner’s office or other locations, added Ihle.
One of the claims made in the letter from FFRF references that the commissioners should not be praying on the taxpayers’ time.
“Commission members are free to pray privately or to worship on their own time in their own way. They do not need to worship on taxpayers’ time,” the latter states.
Ihle added that there is no requirement for any county employee to take part in or attend the event and they are free to do so if they choose.
Regarding prayer to open the meeting, Smith noted that prayers are held to open meetings from the state level at the House of Representatives down to even some local councils and other government meetings.
“We are not telling people that they have to be one religion or another, simply offering up prayer in accordance with our beliefs,” said Smith.
Any one in attendance at the meetings is welcome to not participate in the prayer or to even step outside the room if they see fit, stated Smith.
Smith stated that the office has never received any complaints or concerns regarding the prayers at the meetings or any of the other items referenced in the letter.
A news release from Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) provides the following details on the alleged infractions.
On March 30 (Easter weekend), for example, the county board posted a graphic image on its official Facebook page depicting a crown of thorns with a New Testament verse and this statement: “For anyone who has been to our office or seen our picture in the paper while we are at our desks you have surely seen the banner behind us that says ‘In God We Trust,’” the post reads. “It’s not just a motto. It’s a statement of our faith. Before each weekly board meeting we pray. We pray for and see God’s blessings in Meigs County.” FFRF documented similarly inappropriate postings by the board on its social media platforms.
Additionally, FFRF addressed the unconstitutionality of Meigs County’s National Day of Prayer proclamation and official county prayer ceremony on the courthouse steps. The National Day of Prayer is a sectarian event originating with Reverend Billy Graham during his evangelical crusade in Washington, D.C., in 1952. He expressed an openly Christian purpose, seeking an annual prayer proclamation by the president because he wanted “the Lord Jesus Christ” to be recognized across the land.
“Government employees can worship, pray, or quote any religious text they wish when acting in their personal capacities. But they are not permitted to provide prestige to their personal religion through the machinery of the government office,” writes FFRF’s Patrick O’Reiley Legal Fellow Christopher Line. “The County Commissioners Office belongs to ‘We the people,’ not the office’s temporary occupants.”
It is well-settled law that no government entity may use their position to promote a specific religious viewpoint, and doing so not only violates the First Amendment, but makes citizens feel like outsiders in their own communities.
“Religion is inherently divisive. This large-scale government sponsorship and promotion of religious activity is inappropriate and alienating to many members of the very community the board is supposed to be serving,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Smith stated that the case law referenced in the letter does not necessarily match up with the specific situations addressed in the letter, but will be reviewed further.
Ihle stated that the commissioners will review the details of the letter and make adjustments deemed necessary and appropriate.
FFRF is requesting that the commissioners cease organizing and participating in prayer events, leading prayers at government meetings, and promoting religion on social media.
FFRF asks for a response including the steps that the board plans to take to respect the rights of conscience of all Meigs County residents by ceasing its practice of endorsing religion, and Christianity in particular.
Sarah Hawley is the managing editor of The Daily Sentinel.