Atheist group calls Greene County Commission’s prayer policy unconstitutional

GREENEVILLE (WJHL)- An atheist group is calling the practice of a local commission “unconstitutional.”

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is asking the Greene County Commission to stop praying before meetings, or change its policy.

“As I see it, that’s a time the commission is beginning their duties and they’re asking for guidance and wisdom as they make decisions for the county,” Greene County Mayor David Crum said.

Crum said for decades, every county commission meeting has started with a prayer.

Now that tradition is in question after a local atheist called the mayor, asking to provide the invocation.

“I told them that’s not how it had ever been done, basically (my) predecessor called on commissioners and I’ve called on pastors but you don’t sign up,” Crum said.

That person then reached out to the Wisconsin-based Freedom from Religion Foundation. According to its website FFRF works to “promote nontheism and defend the constitutional separation between religion and government.”

The foundation wrote a letter to Greene County’s attorney.

“The problem is is that it shows favoritism for religion over non-religion to allow the invocation to be only from one perspective, only a religious perspective. The mayor is acting on behalf of the county and he cannot simply choose the prayer-givers who represent his own personal religion, and turn down those who do not,” Ryan Jayne, legal fellow with the Freedom from Religion Foundation said.

Crum said anyone is welcome to speak or pray at a meeting, “We have a public hearing section, people are welcome to come and speak.”

“They never asked to speak during the public comment section the whole point is if you’re going to have an opening invocation that policy has to be neutral,” Jayne said.

Jayne said the county needs to allow anyone to give the invocation, or get rid of it all together.

“If you’re going to have this invocation policy you can’t be picking and choosing which religions or lack their of is representing, you have to allow everybody to give the invocations on equal footing,” Jayne said.

But Crum said as of now, “I hope that we’re able to continue doing as we’ve done for many years.”

Jayne said he sent another letter to the county Thursday. Crum said as soon as he gets it he will determine how to move forward. Jayne said once they get the county’s response they will talk to the citizen who called them to decide if legal action should be taken.

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