ACLU sues Mo. county over prayers at meetings

WASHINGTON, Mo. (AP) — The American Civil Liberties Union wants Franklin County commissioners to stop saying prayers at meetings, stop letting audience members say prayers and stop asking everyone to bow their heads.

A lawsuit filed Sunday against the commissioners on behalf of an anonymous woman claims the policy of Presiding Commissioner John Griesheimer and other members to pray at the beginning of meetings violates both the U.S. and Missouri constitutions.

The Washington Missourian (http://bit.ly/LDdIEz) reported the ACLU sent the county a letter in March asking commissioners to stop the prayers after someone filed an anonymous complaint with the organization.

After receiving the letter, the commission reverted back to offering a moment of silence at the beginning of its meetings, which was the practice after Griesheimer was elected in 2010. That didn’t stop the prayers, though.

Some citizens have prayed 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.”

The suit also says Griesheimer’s instruction to people at the meetings to bow their heads for prayer is offensive “because such instruction is coercive.”

The ACLU is asking a federal court to declare the commission’s acts unconstitutional, issue a permanent injunction against prayers at meetings, and order the commission to pay the anonymous plaintiff $1 for “deprivation of constitutional rights.” It also asks the county to pay the ACLU’s attorney fees.

“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.

Commission members were served with the lawsuit on Tuesday. Later that day, county counselor Mark Vincent said commissioners will need to meet in a closed meeting to discuss the pending litigation.

Vincent called the suit “pre-emptive,” noting he is drafting a policy on the issue of prayers.

“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.

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