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MOUNT VERNON — Knox County Common Pleas Court has “discontinued” a weekly prayer group that convened Fridays from 4-5 p.m. in the Common Pleas Courtroom in response to a July 25 letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) sent to Judge Richard Wetzel.
At the end of June, “a concerned Mount Vernon resident” reached out to the FFRF — a national nonprofit organization with the purpose of protecting “the constitutional principle of separation between state and church,” according to the letter, with concerns about the constitutionality of such a prayer group meeting in the county courthouse. In the letter, shared with the News by the foundation, the FFRF urged the judge to “discontinue this unconstitutional practice.”
In response to this letter, Judge Wetzel wrote back to the FFRF July 30 stating that “the Court will discontinue the practice of allowing the prayer group use of the Courthouse.”
The FFRF stated in its July 25 letter that the prayer group would be considered “unconstitutional,” because allowing a particular religious group the use of the courthouse free of charge forces “taxpayers of all faiths and no religion to support a particular expression of worship,” and also because Judge Wetzel, in his official capacity, is “prohibited from endorsing religion over non-religion or one religious sect over another.”
Andrew L. Seidel, an FFRF constitutional attorney and the director of strategic response, said that the FFRF takes on around 5,000 cases each year around the United States and explained that this case fell under a somewhat unique category of religious groups using public buildings free of charge.
“When you provide a free, exclusive venue in your courtroom for a prayer group to conduct its religious activities,” the letter to Wetzel read, “you create the unmistakable impression that the Knox County Court of Common Pleas favors religion over nonreligion and gives a financial benefit to religion.”
In an effort to identify if the prayer group was, in fact, using the space free of charge, the FFRF also sent a public records request to Clerk of Courts Mary Jo Hawkins, requesting information about rental of county property by private groups, rental agreements specifically between prayer groups and the courthouse, receipts of payment and correspondence between Wetzel and “facilitators of the prayer group.” Hawkins responded to the FFRF stating she had “no knowledge regarding any of the issues queried.”
Seidel explained that this sort of issue is seen more typically within school districts in which religious groups are given favorable treatment over other private groups with “sweetheart deals” or the free use of publicly funded spaces that other private groups do not receive.
The FFRF’s letter also stated that “public officials may not use the prestige of government office to sponsor or promote religion,” citing the Supreme Court’s decision in the County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, in which the Supreme Court concluded, under the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, government is prohibited from endorsing religion and cannot “appear to take a position on questions of religious belief.”
In this case, both the concerned citizen and the FFRF felt that Judge Wetzel’s actions appeared to endorse religion. In initial conversations with the News, Wetzel said that the prayer group was an extension of an effort to include more “faith-based” groups in court and probation programs and stated that no court staff was involved. Wetzel himself was present only in the beginning and end of Friday meetings speaking briefly about “events of the week” in order to preserve the propriety and decorum of his position as an elected official.
“It is often the case that public officials haven’t considered the other point of view,” Seidel said. “In this case it appears that the judge was familiar with the law and when it was pointed out, he saw that it was a problem. It’s great that the judge took the time to think about our letter and made the decision to honor his commitment to the First Amendment as a public official.”
Seidel praised Judge Wetzel for acting quickly to do “the right thing,” and estimated that nearly 50 percent of the cases the FFRF deals with are resolved with a simple letter sent as a first step meant to educate the public official or government group.
It is unclear if the prayer group plans to meet in the future at a different location.
According to Dan Humphrey, a founder of the TouchPointe Marriage and Family Resources Foundation, the facilitators of the prayer group discussed reconvening at the TouchPointe Family Life Center in Mount Vernon, but to his knowledge, had since decided not to reconvene at that location.
Facilitators for the group declined to comment when reached by the News. Knox County Common Pleas Court Assignment Commissioner for Civil and Criminal Division, Brittany McNamara, told the News that Wetzel declined an interview.