Shelby TownshipMay 29, 2012
Township supervisor rejects group’s criticism of invocations
By Brad D. Bates
C & G Staff Writer
SHELBY TOWNSHIP — Following a letter from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, or FFRF, urging him to cease invocations prior to township meetings, Supervisor Richard Stathakis didn’t waver in his support of the prayers.
The group’s letter said it received a complaint from a local resident and that the invocations at Shelby Township meetings have a Christian bias because of the inclusion of such terms as “In Jesus’ name we pray” and “in your name, in the name of Jesus, I pray.”
“I believe we are invoking God’s blessing on our assembly; that is our only intention,” Stathakis said. “It’s not that we’re trying to offend or not offend; we’re simply looking to invoke God’s name and blessing in our meeting.”
The FFRF said that the letter sent to Shelby Township in regard to its invocations isn’t abnormal, and they send similar letters out to different municipalities roughly once a week, but the response from Shelby Township did seem “uncommon.”
“What is uncommon is some of the statements Supervisor Stathakis has made,” said Patrick Elliot, an attorney with the FFRF. “He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the existence of the Establishment Clause (of the U.S. Constitution).
“When the board is giving those invocations, the court considers that government speech, and that falls under the Establishment Clause.”
The Establishment Clause is the portion of the First Amendment of the U. S. Constitution that states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”
The FFRF contends that, because the invocation is part of the meeting, it is “governmental speech,” and it “affiliates the Board with Christianity”; therefore, it is inherently at odds with the Establishment Clause.
Township Attorney Rob Huth, whose law firm has been representing the city of Warren in its legal battle with the FFRF over its Nativity Christmas display, said that the Establishment Clause does not pertain to the township invocations.
“The First Amendment protects a private citizen’s freedom of speech, and the invocation occurs before the meeting is opened,” Huth said, citing that because the prayer is held before the meeting is called to order it is not “governmental speech.”
Stathakis reaffirmed that there is no bias to the invocations in his response letter to the FFRF, stating, “My intent is not to make everyone or even anyone Christian. The meeting is attended by adults, who are presumptively not susceptible to religious indoctrination, who may freely enter and leave without comment and for any number of reasons.”
The supervisor said that the process of choosing speakers to lead the invocation stems from his belief in the values at the core of the nation’s founding.
“Our national religious history is based on Judeo-Christian principles,” Stathakis said. “We will continue that tradition in Shelby Township invocations as long as I am supervisor.”
Stathakis said that policy would open the floor to Jewish and Christian leaders, but when asked if it extended to leaders from other faiths the supervisor said, “We will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Elliot said that his group would hope to see action on the part of the township to alleviate the concerns raised by the resident who contacted them.
“Dropping the invocations altogether would be the best, but at a minimum drop the sectarian invocations,” Elliot said.
When asked if he would ever drop invocations, Stathakis responded, “Absolutely not,” and when asked if he would ever restrict the use of such terms as “Jesus” and “Jesus Christ” from the invocations, he said he “would not be open to that.”
If there is no change to township policy, Elliott said, the next move would be up to any local residents who would wish to seek out the help of the FFRF to follow up with a possible lawsuit against the township.
“We don’t seek these out, someone locally contacts us,” Elliot said. “We are a public nonprofit organization, and we only take action if a member or nonmember contacts us.”
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