The following press release was distributed by Joe Moss and Sylvia Rhodea on March 26, 2024.

Prayer in the Public Square – Free Speech 1000 Miles from Agreement

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It’s not every day the Satanic Temple requests to pray at a public board meeting.

In a county with deep Christian roots, prayers at the Ottawa County Board of Commissioner meetings have most often been offered by Christian pastors.

Over the past year, Ottawa County has been in the spotlight of national and local media— as well as the target of Democrat activist lawfare, due to the courageous, constitutional conservatism of its local leaders. Given the increased visibility of the county, what happens here is likely to obtain national attention.

Satanic Temple Requests to Pray at Public Meeting

In March of 2023, a member of the Satanic Temple of West Michigan contacted a commissioner and requested to be added to the schedule to give an invocation at a future Ottawa County Board of Commissioners meeting. The individual was added to the schedule, like other members of the community who make the same request, according to county policy.

Social Media and Misleading Statements

The week of March 17, 2024, the Satanic Temple of West Michigan released a statement on their social media:

The Satanic Temple of West Michigan is proud to announce that our Ministry has been selected to give an opening invocation at the Ottawa County Commission. We are excited to represent our growing community by taking part in the tradition of invocation.

For clarification, the Satanic Temple was not selected or invited to give an invocation, nor was it chosen to represent the community. The statement was misleading.

Some in the community have repeated this narrative to create chaos and confusion, and malign Board leadership by implying the Satanic Temple was invited to pray. This is simply wrong.

Not rotating the group into the meeting schedule— or now removing them from it, would assuredly result in a lawsuit, and provide increased local and national publicity to the group and/or those promoting the narrative. Perhaps that is the intention.

Why does the county have an invocation policy?

The previous Board of Commissioners had an informal invocation policy under which the commissioners or leaders of various faiths offered prayer, and at times shared information about their beliefs. In 2023, the new Board followed an informal process of accepting suggestions from Commissioners for anyone they would like to propose to give a prayer or invocation. Those names and the names of people who requested to pray were added to a list of potential prayer-givers and scheduled on a first-come, first-served basis.  No one was excluded or rejected.

On October 3, 2023, a local pastor sued the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners claiming that the Board Chair was the only person who selected pastors to pray at board meetings. This was false. The Board Chair did not select which pastors would pray. Instead, the county followed the informal process as outlined above.

The pastor who sued the county had previously prayed at a Board meeting in August of 2022, and falsely claimed that he was rejected in 2023 due to his religious beliefs and support for the LGBTQ+ community. He publicly disagreed with the new Board of Commissioners’ closure of the divisive Department of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). Regardless, he was again given the opportunity to give an invocation at the February 13, 2024 Board meeting.

As the county did not have a formal policy regarding invocations, one was created based on recommendations from legal counsel, Alliance Defending Freedom, and others. It was adopted by the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners in January 2024.

County Invocation Policy

The Invocation Policy was written to allow private citizens to bless the proceedings of the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners. It guarantees equal treatment for all, and protects religious freedom and freedom of conscience, which are priorities of the Board. The policy does not require a person to adhere to a specific faith or religious belief, or require a religious test or exclude people based on their religious views.

Basic guidelines of the policy include:

  • The invocation shall not exceed three (3) minutes.
  • No one is required to participate in any prayer that is offered.
  • Any religious leader or individual who wants to pray at a meeting should email their commissioner to make a request.
  • Requests are filled on a first-come, first-served basis.
  • Prayer-givers shall not proselytize, disparage the views of others, defame, or demean.

The policy is not intended to affiliate the Board of Commissioners with, nor express the Board’s preference for, any faith or religious denomination, even if the majority of prayer-givers are Christian.

Long-term, the policy is designed to involve many pastors and people from Ottawa County who want to pray during meetings.

Relevant Case Law

Ottawa County’s corporate counsel has provided a public memo to explain case law relevant to the county’s Invocation Policy, including the following.

The overriding principle set forth by the Supreme Court in the Town of Greece case can be summarized as follows:

The First Amendment is not a majority rule, and government may not seek to define permissible categories of religious speech. Once it invites prayer into the public sphere, government must permit a prayer giver to address his or her own God or gods as conscience dictates. . . .

Id. at 582.

The County Invocation Policy is based on this principle. Because the County opens its meetings with an invocation by any member of the public, it must allow invocations of any religion. “The opening of sessions of legislative and other deliberative public bodies with prayer is deeply embedded in the history and tradition of this country. From colonial times through the founding of the Republic and ever since, the practice of legislative prayer has coexisted with the principles of disestablishment and religious freedom.” Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 787 (1983). Ottawa County has never denied or refused individuals the opportunity to give an invocation because of either their religious beliefs or the content of their speech or invocation. This practice continues and was codified by the Board with the Invocation Policy.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall famously wrote in her biography of Voltaire that “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Allowing anyone to give an invocation is not approving or disapproving of what was said or prayed, but instead is giving the opportunity to anyone to give the invocation, regardless of their religious beliefs or message.

Even in Town of Greece, the Court noted that “[a] Wiccan priestess who had read press reports about the prayer controversy requested, and was granted, an opportunity to give the invocation.” Town of Greece, 572 U.S. at 572. Even though people of the Wiccan faith were a small minority in that locality, that person was still provided an equal opportunity to give an invocation.

The full legal memo is available for review here.

Should the county wish to limit the content of invocations in the future, it would require stepping away from the history and tradition of our country and discontinuing the opening of meetings with an invocation.

A More Perfect Union

Government is not perfect. But we strive together to create a more perfect union, seeking a just and free society for all.

In a free society, some things are permitted that are disagreeable even to the majority of people. However, limited government is meant to protect the rights of all people, especially the minority.

If the government can make a determination as to what religious views are permissible, what could happen to people in the future if Christians are the minority?

Protection of religious freedom and speech is at times 1000 miles from agreement with a particular religion or speech.

Wise Counsel

People have asked many questions about this situation. We have heard a wide range of responses, including anger, fear, anxiety, courage, strength, and peace.

We have sought and appreciated the wise counsel of local pastors and will continue to listen to trusted voices.

On a personal level, as followers of Christ, we are confident in this— Christ is King. We serve a risen Savior. There is no reason to fear.

This situation may have come as a surprise to some, but it is not a surprise to God. It is a reminder that not everyone in Ottawa County has the same beliefs, worldview or political leanings.

A Widening Divide

Ottawa County is caught in both the political and spiritual crosshairs. Government is downstream from culture, which is downstream from the heart.

The political divide we see in our county and nation is reflective of a widening spiritual divide in its people. Moral relativism is rising and many find truth repugnant, even as a political Party has removed God from their platform.

The same Party now advocates for abortion without parental consent, late-term and partial birth abortion, the sexualization of children at school, and teaching children that society’s worst oppressors as those who are Christian, male, heterosexual, cisgender (identify as sex assigned at birth), and white.

This shift and denial of foundational truths exemplifies differences in spiritual, cultural, and political beliefs— truths like the value of life before birth, gender assigned by the Creator, the protection of the innocence of children, and the natural right of parents to direct their child’s upbringing.

What our country needs is a spiritual awakening. That can only happen by God’s grace, and through the work of the Church.

Christians have an opportunity to continue shining a light in the darkness, standing for truth and loving others.

“If I profess with loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except that little point which the world and the Devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ. Where the battle rages, there the loyalty of the soldier is proved, and to be steady on all the battlefield besides, is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

― Martin Luther

Call to Action

We would love faith leaders to sign up for prayer. You can simply email your county commissioner with a request to pray.

It would also be wonderful for people to join board meetings and speak and/or pray during public comments. Board members are often mocked, maligned, and ridiculed for standing for truth. Encouraging words are a welcome reprieve.

Above all, we ask you to engage with the people and opportunities around you. Broken culture results in broken people. Reject the misconception that people of faith should not engage with culture or politics. The Bible and our nation’s history are filled with courageous men and women who stood on truth and engaged with government.

America needs courage.