Michigan county bows to secular pressure to hold prayers before legislative meetings

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A Michigan county council stopped holding prayers ahead of legislative meetings last month, and a Christian conservative legal organization argued the council caved under incomplete information from a secular nonprofit, despite the repeated Supreme Court endorsements of this longstanding practice.

The Leelanau County Board of Commissioners voted 5-2 in January to scrap the prayer portion of their meeting and replace it with a moment of silence after the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), which champions atheists, agnostics and promotes separation of church and state, sent them a letter in September urging them to end the practice.

“And can I say ‘Amen’ to that?” FFRF co-chair Annie Laurie Gaylor said in a press release after the decision. “We commend the hard work of our local activists who fought for inclusiveness and the wisdom of Leelanau County Council for listening.”

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In the letter, the FFRF wrote that some residents were concerned and reported that the council had recently begun to open its meetings with Christian prayer. About 30% of Leelanau County residents identify as religiously unaffiliated, according to FFRF.

The letter said council policy limited who could issue a summons to those representing an organization with an established presence in the county. The FFRF argued that these limits ensured that the prayers would be Christian, instead of other religious or non-religious beliefs of those in Leelanau County.

“We write on demand [sic] that the Council end its prayer practice, either replacing it with a moment of silence or eliminating it altogether, in order to respect the opinions of all residents of Leelanau County,” the letter added.

In response, the First Liberty Institute, a law firm dedicated to defending and restoring religious freedom, wrote its own letter to the board dated Tuesday, fearing it might end the practice. based on “inexcusably incomplete information and legal analysis” from the FFRF. .

This Nov. 5, 2020, file photo shows the Supreme Court in Washington.
(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

While the two letters cite the 2014 Supreme Court case City of Greece v Galloway – in which the Court ruled that legislative bodies, like city councils, could start meetings with prayer even if it favored a religion specific – FFRF’s letter did not disclose that the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit – in which Leelanau County sits – concluded that legislative invocations are permitted under the US Constitution , whether led by chaplains, local volunteers or elected officials.

Jeremy Dyssthe special counsel for litigation and communications at First Liberty, was candid when writing about the FFRF omission.

Jeremy Dys<strong>, </strong>special adviser for litigation and communications at the First Liberty Institute, wrote a letter dated Tuesday to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners following their decision”/></source></source></picture></div>
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Jeremy Dys, special adviser for litigation and communications at the First Liberty Institute, wrote a letter dated Tuesday to the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners following their decision
(Jeremy Dys, First Liberty Institute)

“This is a landmark precedent for Leelanau County. Thus, it is inexplicable and outrageous that any attorney purporting to analyze the law on this subject would intentionally omit or accidentally ignore the reference to Jackson County,” Dys wrote. in the letter, referring to Bormuth v Jackson County (2017).

“It’s like leaving out a sweet tea recipe, it’s like leaving out that you’re supposed to put sugar in it,” Dys told Fox News by phone. “It’s so excruciating.”

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In Town of Greece v. Galloway, the Court decided that the city of Greece, New York, could allow volunteer chaplains to open each legislative session with a prayer. The court ruled, 5-4, that prayers before the meeting did not violate the constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion.

Religious activists pray after oral arguments in Town of Greece v.  Galloway addressing prayer in government, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 6, 2013. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Religious activists pray after oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway addressing prayer in government, outside the Supreme Court in Washington, DC on November 6, 2013. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

In its letter, the FFRF argued that a critical factor in the Court’s decision to find that Galloway’s practice did not violate the Constitution was that Greece “declared that it would welcome a prayer from any minister or layman who wished to make one”.

“The decision of the Supreme Court would have been different if the city had used the opportunity of prayer to discriminate against minority religions,” explained the FFRF.

Dys said the Sixth Circuit decision gave approval for the elect themselves to lead such prayers.

FFRF staff attorney Chris Lane released a statement to Fox News which read in part: “the Jackson County v. Bormuth The Sixth Circuit case mentioned by First Liberty is relevant only to prayer directed by the legislator. This factual scenario was not in play in Leelanau County, where prayers were to be said by religious leaders, not legislators. the Bormuth case is unrelated to the situation in question. The Supreme Court ruled prayer at legislative meetings constitutional, and the FFRF letter did not claim otherwise.”

“The Council has done the right thing by its citizens by voting to end the proposed prayer practice and instead schedule a moment of silence, which is not excluding anyone. For an organization claiming to champion religious freedom for all Americans, First Liberty should be delighted that the Council has chosen to respect everyone’s religion (or irreligion),” the statement added.

The Supreme Court also upheld legislative prayer in a Nebraska case nearly forty years ago.

In this case, Marsh v. Chambers (1983), the Court noted that “the opening of the sessions of legislative and other public deliberative bodies by prayer is deeply rooted in the history and tradition of this country” and “has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom” since our founding.

Marsh specifically addressed the Nebraska Legislature’s practice of paying a chaplain to deliver legislative invocations before its unicameral meetings. In approving the practice here, the Court approved that legislative bodies like the council could employ a chaplain who would, among other things, open public meetings with prayer.

The Sixth Circuit reviewed the decisions of Marsh and Greece.

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“We do not know the motivations behind your decision,” Dys added in the letter to the board. “However, if the Commission based its decision solely on the letter sent by the FFRF, it did so on the basis of woefully incomplete information. In light of the information articulated here, that decision should be reconsidered.”

“Lawyers are expected to give comprehensive advice to those seeking advice, not push a political agenda. The FFRF has inexcusably left out several critical cases that unequivocally endorse legislative prayer, then twisted City of Greece—a case that endorses religious leaders leading legislative prayer—in order to push this departmental commission to adopt the conclusion desired by the FFRF. Now that Leelanau County has more complete information, they are free to make whatever decision they think is best and their constituents approve,” he told Fox News.

Leelanau County is located northwest of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula.

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