UNION — Franklin County Commissioners received a complaint letter first; then they got slapped with a lawsuit.
The letter was from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) voicing an anonymous complaint toward the Commission and namely the county’s Presiding Commissioner and former Missouri State Senator, John Griesheimer. The letter stated that Greisheimer had been praying openly to start their weekly Commission meetings; an act they deemed unacceptable for an elected official to perform.
Griesheimer, who is Catholic, said he did pray before the meetings but had no idea his prayers upset anyone.
“I pray the way I pray and, I don’t know, I guess before we conducted the session it always felt right to say a prayer,” Griesheimer said. “I would pray for our county or the rain or even the St. Louis Cardinals. That’s just the way I am and the way I pray.”
But he said as soon as they received the first letter he stopped praying publicly and instead led the group in a moment of silence.
But some Franklin County citizens didn’t want to stop praying openly. Griesheimer said the Commission had a policy stating that during the public comment portion of the meeting, a Franklin County resident could talk about anything they wanted, whether it was on the agenda or not. That policy continued after the complaint letter was issued and several community members used that allotted time to pray, an act that once again set the ACLU in motion.
Three weeks after the initial complaint, the County Commission received notification that they were being sued as a collective body and that Griesheimer was being sued personally for soliciting prayers during the audience participation portion of the meeting.
“That is a flat lie,” he said. “I didn’t solicit anybody to do anything and neither did any of the other commissioners. The people did it on their own accord.”
But the suit did cause the Commission to halt public comments on anything other than agenda items while commissioners and lawyers with the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) drafted a new set of invocation guidelines, a plan they believe will meet any constitutional challenges.
“The policy we adopted is a combination of different ideas that we found in other counties,” Griesheimer said. “It states that we will now have a signup sheet for volunteers to give the invocation. Volunteers will be chosen randomly for each meeting and they will be given three minutes to speak. Also, they cannot promote or condemn any other religion.”
When Franklin County Director of Missions (DOM) Jim Plymale heard about the new policy, he immediately volunteered to pray.
“This set of policies protects our freedom of religious expression,” Plymale said. “This way when it’s my turn to pray next month I will be praying in Jesus’ name.”
Plymale has encouraged other Franklin County Baptist preachers and lay people to do the same.
“We had a discussion and talked about the role of our government and the importance of continually praying for those making decisions that affect everyone,” he said. “We need to set a good example and show that we care, because if we don’t care or are not involved, others who are not Christ-centered will. We need to be the salt and light in our community.”
And though the lawsuit likely won’t reach a verdict until sometime next summer, Griesheimer is confident that the courts will rule in their favor or else an out-of-court settlement will take place.
“Our attorneys and the ADF say this case is a slam dunk,” he said. “They said we have an extremely strong case and that all we can do is hope for a quick resolution.”
He stressed that the Commission does not want to subject the county to an expensive legal battle if they can help it. However, he said there are two issues that they will fight the ACLU on if necessary.
“First, I will never admit to do anything unconstitutional,” Griesheimer said. “And second, we will not agree to anything other than the current volunteer invocation policy. Those two issues are non-negotiable.”