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Washington religious freedom group threatens lawsuit

ADAM LAWSON

Staff Writer

In an email sent on Monday, a Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty watchdog group warned Lincoln County commissioners not to ban non-Christian prayer from government meetings and gave commissioners 30 days to respond.

The letter, sent from Americans United for Separation of Church and State, comes in response to  Board of Commissioners chairman Carrol Mitchem’s comments in Friday’s Times-News. In that article, Mitchem said that if a Muslim came to a county meeting to give an invocation, “I’m going to tell him to leave.” He added that he has “no use for (those) people.”

“We write to inform you that such a discriminatory policy would blatantly violate the U.S. Constitution and subject your county to legal liability,” the letter reads.

In a press release, Americans United executive director Rev. Barry W. Lynn criticized Mitchem’s understanding of the Constitution. Previously, Mitchem said that he doesn’t like changing rules on the way the “Constitution was founded.”

“Lincoln County Commission Chair Carrol Mitchem appears to have little understanding of how the U.S. Constitution operates,” Lynn said. “I have some advice for Mr. Mitchem: Government exists to serve all people, not just the ones who share your belief system. If you can’t accept that, I suggest you find another line of work.”

Alex Luchenitser, an associate legal director at Americans United, said Mitchem’s comments were among the worst he’s seen in his role.

“This is pretty bad,” Luchenitser said. “This is among the worst instances of open religious discrimination we’ve seen in terms of discrimination toward a religious group. This is very egregious.”

Mitchem, when reached by phone, said he had yet to read the letter and declined to provide comment.

Luchenitser said Mitchem’s comments sent a message that could perhaps deter a non-Christian from participating in county government proceedings. He added the group could potentially seek a lawsuit if changes aren’t made.

“That’s something we’d certainly consider,” Luchenitser said. “We’d have to talk to the people of the county to see if they’d want to pursue a lawsuit. We’d need local people who want to take part in a lawsuit. Hopefully the commission will back down. Hopefully this is just the views of one commissioner. Hopefully this can be worked out without a lawsuit, but this is such an egregious violation of the law that I don’t think there’s a lawyer in the country that can tell Mitchem he can limit invocations to Christians only.”

The letter enclosed a model policy that would, according to Americans United, ensure that such discrimination would not occur. The policy asks Lincoln County to open invocations up to all faiths and to any citizen of the county. That citizen “need not be a member of the clergy in order to deliver a solemnizing message.”

It also asks the county to publicize the opportunity to deliver a “solemnizing message” on an ongoing basis, beginning within 30 days. It requests that the county announce a disclaimer prior to that invocation, expressing that the speaker is “expressing his or her own views and beliefs.”

“The main point of the letter is that they can’t discriminate based on religions when they decide who gives the invocation,” Luchenitser said. “One way to avoid the conversation entirely is to replace the invocations with a moment of silence.”

Luchenitser said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the county got some invocation requests from non-Christians in the near future.

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