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US priest sues Ottawa County for right to say prayers

03 November 2023

ST JOHN’S, GRAND HAVEN

The Revd Jared Kramer

The Revd Jared Kramer

A PRIEST in the United States is suing the governing body of Ottawa County, in Michigan, for excluding him from the prayer rota because of his religious beliefs.

The Rector of St John’s Episcopal Church, Grand Haven, the Revd Jared Cramer, says that he has been excluded from the public prayer rota before meetings, and that all those who currently lead prayers are Evangelical men.

In local elections held last year, most of the seats on the Board of Commissioners were won by candidates affiliated with Ottawa Impact, a political action group formed out of widespread anger and distrust over Covid-19 mitigation measures. One of the candidates’ first actions on taking office was to close the county’s office of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and to cut the health budget. They also ended the tradition of the saying of the prayers by ministers of different denominations on a rota. No Episcopalian priest had been invited to say prayers since the elections, Fr Cramer said.

St John’s is one of the few LGBTQ+-affirming churches in the county. It is involved with the Ottawa Coalition of Unifying Christians: a group of 11 congregations and more than 400 individuals, including 30 clergy, who oppose the direction taken by Ottawa Impact.

Fr Cramer has brought the case in a personal capacity. He said that his attorney had taken on his case on a “contingency” basis, which means that he will not have to pay if he loses, and, if he wins, the Board of Commissioners will have to pay legal expenses.

He said that it was a risk that he was willing to take, “because the law on this question in the United States is pretty settled and clear: if you are going to allow prayers at a government function, you must give equal opportunity to all views and perspectives”.

The Board of Commissioners has until 3 December to respond to his lawsuit.

Fr Cramer has already considered what prayer he would say at the next meeting, should he win the case. “Normally, I would simply use a prayer from the Book of Common Prayer, as that book almost always says what needs to be said. In this case, though, I would pray to the ‘God of our many understandings’ — a God I have come to know and love through Jesus Christ — and pray that God would move the hearts of those who bear the authority of government in Ottawa County so that the well-being of every resident is cared for.

“I’d pray for the queer kids who are being told they are wrong. The families who are struggling because of the way this board has slashed health-department funding. I’d pray for people of colour in our county who saw the motto ‘Where you belong’ taken away, along with the department of diversity, equity, and inclusion, and now wonder if Ottawa County can be a home for them.

“I’d pray for people of all faiths and of no faiths who are scared of those with whom they disagree, and I’d pray that decency, love, and justice would once more come to the forefront of how our county operates.”

In June, St John’s sponsored Grand Haven’s first Pride festival, which attracted an estimated 4000 people.

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