FFRF safeguards constitutional rights in Ohio courthouse

The Freedom From Religion Foundation applauds a Knox County (Ohio) judge for halting religious activity in his courtroom after its unconstitutionality was called to his attention.

FFRF, a national state/church watchdog, had received a report from a concerned Mount Vernon citizen that Judge Richard Wetzel regularly invited a prayer group to use the courthouse for religious activities — even involving them in legal proceedings that he felt “have a particular need for prayer.”

“An opportunity to have the churches directly engage in what the court is doing is very important to me,” Judge Wetzel has been quoted saying.

FFRF sent a letter on July 25 to the judge, noting why this practice is unconstitutional, and asking him to end the practice of providing the courtroom free of charge to host bible studies and prayer. While commending the judge for his proactive work to make justice restorative and rehabilitate offenders, FFRF cited constitutional concerns. Providing a venue for a prayer group creates the unmistakable impression that the Knox County Court of Common Pleas endorses and favors religion.

“Public officials may not use the prestige of government office to sponsor or promote religion,” writes FFRF Staff Attorney Andrew Seidel. “The oath of office requires judges to uphold the United Stated Constitution, including the First Amendment and its Establishment Clause.”

In a July 30 letter, the judge thanked FFRF for bringing its concerns to his attention and said he had given the letter “thoughtful consideration.”

“Please be advised that, in response to your letter, the Court will discontinue the practice of allowing the prayer group use of the Courthouse,” Wetzel wrote.

FFRF commends Judge Wetzel for his commitment to keeping his courthouse activities secular and welcoming to all members of the community.

“Religion is inherently divisive and it has no place in the court system where justice should be blind to a citizen’s religious or nonreligious views,” says FFRF Co-President Dan Barker. “It’s commendable that Judge Wetzel so conscientiously took action to remedy this situation.”

FFRF is a national nonprofit organization with more than 32,000 members across the country and over 900 members and a chapter in Northern Ohio. FFRF’s purposes are to protect the constitutional principle of separation between state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism.

Freedom From Religion Foundation

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