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Op-ed: Ruling a victory for freedom

As a taxpaying citizen of the City of Parkersburg, I am absolutely thrilled that my co-plaintiff, Daryl Cobranchi, and I recently won a federal lawsuit in the Federal District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia, enjoining the Parkersburg City Council from continuing to lead the uniquely Christian Lord’s Prayer at public meetings. I deeply appreciate the nonprofit Freedom From Religion Foundation and the private attorneys in the case who are licensed to practice in West Virginia for representing us and defending the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

I also appreciate District Court Judge John T. Copenhaver, a Gerald Ford appointee who is 96 years young, for his clear and concise 30-page ruling in the case. Judge Copenhaver found, in part, that “…the City Council wrapped itself in a single faith. That is exemplified by the unduly heightened risk of coercion by the state by virtue of the governmental identity of the prayer-givers acting in unison, the invariable nature of the sectarian prayer that is associated with and endorses Christianity, and the implicit and sometimes express invitation to the public in attendance to join in, all in the relative intimacy of a local government setting.”

Parkersburg Mayor Tom Joyce has referred to this lawsuit as “highly politically motivated from what I will call left-leaning individuals.” Joyce has also said that he thinks “a lot of this was payback for the failure of the nondiscrimination ordinance” and that he thinks “Christianity has been under attack in the United States for a long time…this is just another example of people using the law to fit their narrative.”

Like so many of those in today’s Republican Party with which Joyce affiliates, Joyce is the one with a narrative he’s trying to get the law to fit. Christian nationalists like Joyce see the separation of church and state enshrined in our nation’s secular constitution as not in keeping with the revisionist narrative of a Christian nation they like to espouse. Even the GOP’s all-time favorite President (or maybe second favorite now), Ronald Reagan, spoke in favor of church/state separation. President Reagan said in 1984, “We establish no religion in this country… Church and state are, and must remain, separate.” But to be fair, the former president vying for favorite over Reagan, Donald Trump, would probably attribute this remark to Reagan’s Alzheimer’s and poke fun at Reagan for having the disease. That lets modern Republicans off the hook, right?

Joyce’s remarks referencing the non-discrimination ordinance fight in 2017 aren’t just nonsensical, they’re dangerous. Affiliating mine and my co-plaintiff’s lawsuit over an unconstitutional prayer invocation practice with the failure of a non-discrimination ordinance that would have made discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, veterans status and genetic information illegal within the city limits further endangers the lives, health and safety of the LGBTQ+ community and their allies in our area. Such remarks are incredibly careless and unnecessary.

I’m sure there will be folks who attend council meetings now just to shout prayers and carry on and that’s fine. All that matters is whether or not the Council and Mayor engage with this behavior from the dais. If any of them do, they’ll be violating a federal court order and will be held accountable. That’s what this entire lawsuit was about–accountability. The city had been given ample opportunity since at least 2015 to either change the invocation practice to pass constitutional muster or just stop it altogether. They refused. Now thousands of dollars have been wasted (exact figures are still forthcoming) in the vain pursuit of performative piety by a governing body.

I’m an atheist but, like many atheists, I am very familiar with the bible. In the gospels, Jesus put forth the admonition that believers pray privately and not in the streets for attention. Jesus also mentioned giving unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and respecting public authorities. A majority of the people who have thanked me for filing this lawsuit and seeing it through to fruition have been Christians. So much for Christianity being under attack. If anything, this ruling is a victory for conscious over compulsory faith. Let freedom ring.

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Eric Engle is assistant state director for American Atheists in Parkersburg.

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