Sunday, October 1, 2000

Say a prayer for the ACLU

        The Bengals are on the wrong end of more blowouts than Firestone. Our new riverfront is sinking in a tar pit of bickering. And city council meetings look like outtakes from Springer shows.

        Our local leaders could use a few prayers for courage and wisdom.

        But hold that “Heavenly Father.” Now that the ACLU has sued Hamilton County for organizing a prayer rally on the courthouse steps, all blessings will have to be cleared by the legal department. (“Memo from legal: Strike that stuff about forgiving trespasses.”)

        I'm surprised the ACLU has time for a Cincinnati prayer meeting. They've been working overtime bashing Boy Scouts, blocking filters in libraries that might deprive kids of Internet porn, and fighting for the rights of child molesters in the North American Man-Boy Love Association.

        Even local ACLU lawyer Scott Greenwood shakes his head at some ACLU positions. But he's sure that Hamilton County went too far at the National Day of Prayer on May 4.

        “The last two years there have been overt and obvious worship services,” he said. “The commissioners used their powers as elected officials. The program even has the county seal on it. Mr. Bedinghaus was the ringleader.”

        Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus replied by wondering why the ACLU protects hatemongers but tries to prohibit prayer.

        But Mr. Greenwood, who seems too reasonable for an ACLU lawyer, warned that Day of Prayer ceremonies could open the courthouse doors to demonstrations by the wacko of the week.

        And National Day of Prayer spokesman Mark Freed said citizens should lead prayers to avoid ACLU lawsuits.

        I was ready to grudgingly admit the ACLU was right. But not so fast, said the ACLJ — which is to the ACLU what Pat Robertson is to Howard Stern.

        “Government officials need not be so frightened of the ACLU,” said Frank Manion, senior attorney for the American Center for Law and Justice. “That's an ACLU phobia we all suffer from, and I'm a bit tired of it. The county commissioners have just as much right to interpret their constitutional rights as the ACLU has.”

        Mr. Manion, who has defeated the ACLU in similar cases, offered to defend the county pro bono. “They have a very defensible case,” he said.

        He believes the ACLU is trying to “make it virtually impossible to recognize the place of religion in public life.”

        He has a point. The famous “wall” between church and state is legal bushwa, lifted from an informal letter by Thomas Jefferson. It's nowhere in the Constitution, but reporters and judges cite it religiously.

        County Commissioner John Dowlin, who started local National Day of Prayer events eight years ago, says demonstrations in the courthouse are already prohibited. And Prosecutor Mike Allen said, “The courthouse steps are a free speech area.”

        Mr. Dowlin gave his blessing to a settlement offered by Mr. Greenwood: Let citizens lead the event.

        But Mr. Dowlin rejects Mr. Greenwood's demand to move the ceremony.

        “I just want it to happen,” he said. “But if we're being advised we can't keep the Ku Klux Klan off the courthouse steps, why should we have to keep the National Day of Prayer off the courthouse steps?”

        Good question. And how is a county invitation more “illegal” than National Day of Prayer proclamations signed and sealed by 49 governors?

        In case you are wondering, the missing governor is Minnesota's Jesse Ventura, who has proclaimed that Christianity is for weaklings.

        Hardly. With people like Jesse Ventura and the ACLU around, we should all pray for more courage and wisdom.

        Peter Bronson is editorial page editor of The Enquirer. If you have questions or comments, call 768-8301, or write to 312 Elm Street, Cincinnati, Ohio 45202.