County denies use of courtroom for prayer event

April 27, 2013

Members of the Hood County Commissioners Court know they may not have a prayer of escaping controversy over their vote to keep religion out of the second-floor courtroom at the courthouse on the square.

In a 3-2 vote at their regular meeting Tuesday, court members voted against allowing a local group to use the courtroom next week to commemorate the annual National Day of Prayer. Organizers had asked for use of the courtroom from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. on Thursday.

The after-hours activities would not have interfered with any court hearings handled by County Judge Darrell Cockerham or Precinct 4 Justice of the Peace Danny Tuggle, whose offices are at the courthouse.

However, that was not the issue for Cockerham and commissioners Jeff Tout and Steve Berry when they outvoted their colleagues, James Deaver and Dick Roan.

Berry said that the gazebo outside the courthouse had been offered to National Day of Prayer organizers, and he warned his colleagues to “be aware” that granting the group’s request for use of the courtroom could open the door for all types of other groups wanting the same privilege.

National Day of Prayer organizers do have plans to use the gazebo outside the courthouse for Scripture readings.

Cockerham said that other groups that might ask for use of the courtroom or any other county building could include atheist organizations and even “the Ku Klux Klan.”

The constitutionality of the National Day of Prayer is currently under challenge.

A year ago this month, a federal appellate court ruled that the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) lacked standing in its challenge of the law, which was adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1952. The three-judge panel, however, did not address the constitutionality issue. The FFRF is appealing the decision.

Roan, who represents Precinct 2, suggested approving the request, but adopting a policy to only grant requests that involve commemoration of special days designated by the government.

“If we compress it to days that our national government recognizes … I think with them coming to court (for approval), at least we have grounds for discussion,” he said.

Precinct 1’s Deaver was agreeable to that suggestion. However, it was not enough to alleviate the concerns of Cockerham, Berry and Tout. Berry represents Precinct 4, and Tout, Precinct 3.

Just before the vote, Berry stated he still felt that approving the request “is going to create controversy for future courts.”

On Wednesday, Cockerham reiterated that the denial was about the larger issue and was not intended as a slight to supporters of the National Day of Prayer.

“It’s not that we’re against prayer,” he said. “It’s that we’re opening that door.”

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