Setting the Cobb County Prayer Case Record Straight
The primary election season is upon us, and so the hyperbole is in full swing. The bickering back and forth between Sam Olens and Max Wood, both running for Georgia Attorney General, is a prime example of how politicians misrepresent information so that they can appeal to their specific electorate. Mr. Olens erroneously claims, in a TV ad, that he protected prayer against the ACLU. As one of the plaintiffs in the 2005 Cobb County prayer case, I will verifiably set the presently distorted record straight.
The case was NOT initiated to remove prayer or a moment of spiritual reflection from the beginning of any government meeting as was depicted in Olen’s ad. The offering of an invocation was never in question. It was quite the opposite. A previous case, Marsh vs. Chambers, found it acceptable to offer invocations at government meetings as long as they were not specifically sectarian. In other words prayer is acceptable as long as it doesn’t isolate any part of the citizenry by specific references to Jehovah, Allah, Vishnu, Jesus, Zeus, or whatever God or no God that anyone in the citizenry believes. That’s what separation of church and state is about, allowing all (I reiterate, all) of the people to be a part of our great and free nation. No one can be made to feel less of a citizen because the government fosters one type of invocation over another. All faiths in the eyes of government must be viewed as equal, whether there is one adherent or one billion adherents, the government in our free country cannot repress anyone practicing their belief (short of living sacrifices).
In Cobb Commission meetings, the invocations were overwhelming given in the name of Jesus. The occasional Rabbi offered their prayers to God. There were no Imams until the county invited one they chose from a list of community leaders the plaintiffs offered. While there are many leaders of other faiths and no faiths living in Cobb, the commission’s representative chose not to ask them to give an invocation.
While Judge Story decided this case differently than Marsh, in that he allowed for specific sectarian reference, he did so with the understanding that all beliefs or no beliefs of the citizenry must, going forward, be given an opportunity to present their version of an invocation. He based this on the fact that the Cobb Commission’s representative, who invited clergy to give the invocation, crossed the Mormon representatives out of the phone book that was being used to call potential invocators. Faiths like Wicca, not listed in the phone book would not even be sought out for consideration.
The county was found to be wrong in its deliberate practice of not choosing invocators outside of its Christian / Jewish focus and was ordered to open the invocation to all belief structures. The plaintiffs, while not stopping the sectarian references, did resolve an important issue in that court order. Cementing that victory, the court further ordered the County to pay $2,301 in attorneys’ fees to the plaintiffs and the civil-rights organizations that represented them. Olens thus plainly exaggerates when he claims that the lawsuit resulted in an unmitigated win for his side.
Regardless of what fabrication the politicians make up about the county winning the suit, the fact is the Cobb County Commission had to mend its anti-American ways. It now must give all its citizens, regardless of their belief or no belief, an opportunity to express their understanding of the universe without the government expressing “repugnant” distain for any offering. Just because an official might feel politically uncomfortable listening to an unfamiliar but heartfelt approach to belief doesn’t justify, as both Mr. Woods and Mr. Olens feel, the unlawful future banning of the individual invocator as was done to Ed Buckner, President of American Atheists. It is after all not the government’s place, especially a potential attorney general’s place, to judge an invocator’s offering, theistic, or atheistic, in a negative light just to gain political leverage. That is why we must protect our liberty preserving separation of church and state. Just because the specific words of separation are not used in our founding document, what other intent could there be for phrases like “no religious test shall ever be required,” except to be respectful of all citizens beliefs without fear of government repression.