Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry says he's not surprised by a suit filed in federal court here Friday that asks the commission to stop holding Christian prayers at its meetings. That's because he, other commission members and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, also named in the suit, had ample warning that such a suit was possible but took no action to halt the conduct that prompted it.
In May, the Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to the commissioners asking them to stop prayers before meetings. The letter pointed out that "every 2012 prayer so far has been given 'in Jesus name'." The regular use of that invocation in official prayers, the foundation's missive correctly pointed out, amounts to a government endorsement of a specific religion -- Christianity, in this case. That, the letter added, violates the Establishment Clause and was outside the scope of a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case that set standards for legislative prayer.
A prompt and thoughtful response to the May letter by commissioners could have resolved the prayer issue and likely avoided Friday's filing. The commission could have stopped the prayers or it could have continued the practice of offering prayers but done so in a manner that was more inclusive of faiths and beliefs other than Christianity. It did neither.
Instead, commissioners said they would study the issue, referred the matter to Taylor, who promised to review the letter and then advise commissioners how to respond. He has not done so yet, but his personal view of the matter, however, should be well known. Earlier this month, Taylor opened a commission meeting by offering a prayer that ended "... we ask in your son Jesus' name, Amen." That invocation in that setting surely violates the U.S. Constitution.
The suit filed Friday by Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, both residents of Hamilton County, is a logical outgrowth of the commission's and Taylor's refusal to address the issue. Both have had several weeks to make a public statement about the issue and to change policies, but have not. They've even refused to hold a moment of silence rather than a prayer when asked to do so at a June 6 meeting.
Perhaps the suit will force the commission to act. Though eliminating all prayer before a meeting is preferable, they need not do so. The commission could ask for a moment of prayer where all present could pray -- or not -- as they chose. Or they could create a system in which representatives of many faiths were invited in turn to offer a prayer. The latter would avoid any charge that commissioners were endorsing a specific faith through prayer.
Lawsuits sometimes are necessary to clarify points of law. That's not the case in this instance. The law is clear. Public government-endorsed prayers that support a specific religion are banned. If commissioners and Taylor do not understand that, then Friday's lawsuit is merited.