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“Judge Wetzel got it started, we take no credit for any of this, but Al heard about it and he, and I think a couple of people, came to the first meeting and then we’ve just prayed ever since,”
Linda Coulson, prayer group member
MOUNT VERNON — For over a year, a prayer group has been meeting in the Knox County Courthouse on Fridays after the courthouse closes at 4 p.m.
Judge Richard Wetzel explained that the group was formed as a result of outreach efforts to pastors and their congregations in area churches. The outreach was initially meant to educate the various congregations about the challenges facing the community in regards to the cases the court was seeing, the agencies the court works with and how the congregations could help.
There has been a state and federal push, according to the judge, to involve more “faith-based” groups in court and probation programs. Wetzel said that he feels area churches have been an untapped resource. Currently, some area churches are involved in jail ministries working with inmates, but Wetzel said that this could expand to mentoring in drug-related court cases, which would be one-on-one and require a lot of man power.
“The prayer group is important to me, because it is a good way to engage the broader community in the work of the court” Wetzel said. “There are 111 churches out there in Knox County, and an opportunity to have the churches directly engage in what the court is doing, is very important to me. I think that by inviting them to come in to the courtroom for any reason — I mean we have some people from churches that are coming on Friday mornings to observe criminal court, they just come in to watch — it’s really a good way to introduce people out of the broader community to the nature of what the court does and the kinds of cases we have and the needs that they have in the community for the people who pass through the community. Any way I can get them in here is what I’m trying to do.”
The prayer group, which started within a few months of Judge Wetzel’s term in January 2017, has been continued by word-of-mouth after Wetzel gave permission to the pastors he spoke with to invite members of their congregation to the courthouse. However, the judge typically starts sessions at 4 p.m., or a little before, by speaking to the group about cases that came through the court that week that he feels have a particular need for prayer.
Representatives from the community sometimes come to speak to the group, such as Sgt. Andy Burns with the MVPD, who spoke to attendees about the new police chaplain program. Around 5 p.m. the judge joins the group again to answer any follow-up questions they might have before they leave the courtroom and courthouse.
Attendance has largely been influenced by word-of-mouth rather than public announcement. Linda and Al Coulson of Mount Vernon have been integral in keeping the group going, according to group member Clara Mast, who said that Al sends out texts to group members to make sure they know it is happening. But Linda and Al vehemently deny any credit for the group.
“Judge Wetzel got it started, we take no credit for any of this, but Al heard about it and he, and I think a couple of people, came to the first meeting and then we’ve just prayed ever since,” Linda Coulson told the News.
Dave Church of Fredericktown, who has been attending since around September, said he heard about the prayer group at a friend’s house.
“I was actually at a friend’s football party watching the OSU football game and our pastor talked to us about what was going on up at the courthouse and I just felt like God grabbed my heart right there and said, ‘The least you could do is pray for our county,’” Church said. “I’ve been coming ever since and it’s just been awesome to see different congregations and different people from different backgrounds come together and pray for Knox County and the judge. The judge opened the [courtroom] to us and we took advantage of it.”
Wetzel said that the group is open to any individuals, of any religion, who want to come, though he stated he is unaware which religions have been represented in the past year because he does not take part in the group and because attendees have been invited largely by word-of-mouth. When asked if the group was open to all religions, Linda Coulson said that “as far as I know, only Christians come.”
“Because we’re Christians, we’re able to pray in unity and one accord,” Church said of the prayer group. “And that’s powerful when we’re in agreement. We pray in agreement for the county and we pray in the name of Jesus.”
Linda Coulson said she does not feel prayer in the courtroom is an issue of separation of church and state because “we’re not in any official capacity with the government of this county,” noting that the courtroom is open and the prayer group comes at the invitation of the judge. Mast said that she feels it is very important that the prayer group be physically in the courtroom.
“The judge has said since we started to pray in the courtroom, he’s been able to tell a difference in the people when the people come through and the whole atmosphere in the courtroom has changed,” Mast said.
Is there a Constitutional question?
Is a prayer group meeting in the common pleas courtroom constitutional? Peter Shane, a professor of constitutional and administrative law at the Ohio State University Michael E. Moritz College of Law said, at the very least, it’s problematic.
Shane explained that if the prayer group was one of many groups using the courtroom in the same manner, constitutionally speaking, the group would be much more sound on the grounds that use of the courtroom is open to the public indiscriminately.
The judge stated that groups do in fact come in and use the courtroom, such as public school classes, MVNU classes and students participating in Moot Court, a fake court case that provides training for students interested in a legal career. These groups are aimed at education, according to the judge, which he contends is the same purpose of the prayer meetings.
The use of a community space for primarily religious purposes that has “no effect other than religious” is “problematic” Shane said. He explained that if the purpose of the prayer meetings is “inherently religious,” then the constitutionality of such meetings would be “doubtful” based on the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion,” and which also “prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another,” according to the Cornell University law website.
The judge stated that, for the purpose of “maintaining the appearance of propriety,” he stays out of the courtroom for the majority of the prayer meeting, except for at the
beginning and end. No court staff, according to Judge Wetzel, participates. However, whether or not the judge himself would participate in such a prayer group would not have any effect on the questionable constitutionality, in Shane’s opinion, if the group itself is primarily religious.
Edward Miller, director of public information at the Ohio State Supreme Court declined to give comment on the matter on the grounds that administrative staff is not allowed to give legal advice or to interpret rules or laws.