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Christian rights groups rally in defense of commissioners’ prayers

Friday, December 14, 2007
Devon Immelt
Staff Writer

DELAWARE —?News that the Delaware County commissioners are being asked to stop using sectarian prayers during their public meetings has spread to the ears of Christian Rights advocacy groups locally and nationwide.

Two such groups, The Ohio Christian Alliance and the Alliance Defense Fund, are now rallying to the commissioners’ cause in defense of the prayers. One of the groups is offering to represent the county in court free of charge should the matter move into litigation.

“Instead of bowing to these radical demands, we are encouraging the commissioners to stand up for this most cherished American tradition,” said Michael Johnson, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of attorneys nationwide that advocates for freedom of religious expression.
The Alliance Defense Fund on Thursday sent a letter to the commissioners saying that their use of prayers during meetings is, in fact, legal. The letter includes a written policy the group says the commissioners can use to conduct prayers legally. The letter also includes an offer by Johnson to defend the policy free of charge should the commissioners face any legal challenge to it.

“We strongly believe this policy will pass constitutional muster,” Johnson told the Gazette Thursday.
The Alliance Defense Fund’s letter to the county comes in response to another letter the commissioners received earlier this week from Washington D.C. based Americans United for Separation of Church and State. That letter urged the commissioners to consider eliminating prayers during their public meetings.The organization contends that the prayers conducted by Delaware County Commissioner Glenn Evans are sectarian because they often include a reference to Jesus Christ. Such prayers may alienate non-Christians and be in conflict with Supreme Court rulings, the organization’s “senior litigation counsel” Alex J. Luchenitser said.

Johnson said similar letters from Americans United for Separation of Church and State have been received by dozens of other governmental boards across the country this year, most recently in Akron, Ohio. Johnson said The Alliance Defense Fund has been responding to those letters in turn, advising the various communities that prayers during public meetings are protected under the constitution.

“We are telling the communities that this radical organization’s demands are not grounded in law and that prayer is legal,” Johnson said.

That includes sectarian prayer, he said. “The Supreme Court has acknowledged prayer and it is deeply impeded in the history of this country,” he said.

Meanwhile, the commissioners continue to hold prayer during their meetings while they await a legal opinion on the issue from Delaware County Prosecutor Dave Yost. Evans led Thursday’s commissioner meeting with a prayer that included “Your good, loving Father, we thank you for this day that you’ve blessed us with.”

Although Yost said he is reviewing relevant case law out of due diligence before advising the commissioners further, he said he feels comfortable that the prayers are legal. The Supreme Court has previously upheld prayer in public meetings and references to a particular faith does not reverse those rulings, he said.

Evans, a member of the Harlem Road United Methodist Church, in Galena, has said his prayers are not intended to alienate non-Christians, but to seek guidance in the board’s decisions. Delaware County Commissioners Jim Ward and Kris Jordan said they are supportive of Evans’ prayers.
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