[Episcopal News Service] An Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Western Michigan is suing his county’s board of commissioners, accusing them of religious discrimination and violating the First Amendment.
The Rev. Jared Cramer, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, says in his lawsuit that the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners and its chairperson, Joe Moss, excluded him from the board’s rotation for leading public prayer before the start of public meetings due to his religious beliefs. Cramer requested to join the rotation of prayer leaders several times, but never received a response, the lawsuit says. Public commission meetings are held twice a month.
Cramer told Episcopal News Service that he filed the lawsuit on his own, but he’s “also filing it in the hope that that broader Christian voice can be represented at the county level.” In the lawsuit, which was filed on Oct. 3, Cramer is asking to be added to the prayer rotation, as well as for compensation for punitive damages and associated fees. Currently, no court date has been set.
Before 2023, different board members appointed church leaders from different denominations to lead the prayer before meetings, a practice that, nationwide, has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court as constitutional most recently in 2014. Since the new board took over this year in January, selection is exclusive to Moss, and everyone who’s led the prayer are all men who hold similar political beliefs, according to the lawsuit.
Since November 2022, Ottawa County has attracted attention from national news outlets over its local election results. After months of campaigning over COVID-19 health ordinances and social issues, far-right candidates won most of the seats on the Ottawa County Board of Commissioners. The new board swiftly made changes upon taking office, one of the first being to close the county’s office of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Most of the new board members are affiliated with Ottawa Impact, a far-right political action committee focused on recruiting and raising money for local candidates to unseat incumbent members of Ottawa County’s board of commissioners. Members of Ottawa Impact mostly come from evangelical Christian backgrounds.
“The far-right Ottawa Impact-led board of commissioners, since they took office, has only allowed those Christians which agree with their extreme views to offer prayer before the meetings, which is a clear violation of the First Amendment’s constitution, which guarantees that no religious view is going to be privileged in this country,” Cramer said. “By doing that, they have effectively attempted to silence the voices of a significant number of Christians who believe that following Jesus means something very different than what Ottawa Impact is doing.”
St. John’s stands out among churches in Ottawa County because it’s one of the few parishes that’s LGBTQ+ affirming. Cramer vocally supports the LGBTQ+ community, which, according to the lawsuit, Moss opposes.
In June, St. John’s sponsored Grand Haven’s first Pride festival, which attracted an estimated 4,000 people.
St. John’s is a member of the Ottawa Coalition of Unifying Christians, a group of clergy, congregations and lay members of different denominations that openly opposes Ottawa Impact and its “interpretations of ‘freedom’ which encourages potentially harmful actions endangering other residents of Ottawa County.” Grace Episcopal Church in nearby Holland is also a member.
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.