The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio Foundation will file suit in United States District Court in Cincinnati this afternoon, challenging the role that Hamilton County officials played in organizing and participating in a National Day of Prayer rally held at the County Courthouse on May 4, 2000. Papers to be filed in federal court today note that county officials planned, sponsored and participated in the event, which included overtly sectarian songs and prayers. County officials, including County Commissioner Robert Bedinghaus, who introduced the event, encouraged passers by to join in what amounted to a worship service on the steps of the courthouse. County officials invited Baptist, Jewish, Methodist, and Catholic clergy to participate in the event, and broadcast the ceremony over a public address system owned and operated by the County.
The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the government from endorsing or promoting a particular faith, or religion in general. When the government funds or sponsors a worship service, or participates so completely in a religious event as to create the appearance of government entanglement or sponsorship, the First Amendment is violated. “This is not a accidental or technical violation of the law,” noted ACLU General Counsel Scott Greenwood in a prepared statement released today, “this is a textbook violation of the First Amendment, in which government officials utterly ignored their duty to respect the separation of church and state.”
Today’s federal civil rights suit is being brought under a Civil War era federal statute that allows private citizens to challenge government misconduct which violates their constitutional rights. The suit is being brought by the ACLU on behalf of its over one thousand members in the Greater Cincinnati area. Attorneys for the ACLU are asking the federal court to declare that government involvement in the ceremonies held last May violated the First Amendment, and to issue an injunction which would prohibit county officials from organizing or engaging in similar events in the future.
Scott Greenwood and Steve Felson will be available to answer questions from the press immediately after the case is filed, on the steps of the Hamilton County Courthouse, 1000 Main Street, in Downtown Cincinnati, at 3:00 p.m. this afternoon. Copies of the suit papers will be made available to the press at that time.