Pastor files lawsuit against Ottawa County claiming religious discrimination
Below is an article from today's Holland Sentinel that speaks to the ministry of our congregation.
OTTAWA COUNTY — The Ottawa County Board of Commissioners is facing a third lawsuit — this time in federal court over allegations of religious discrimination.
Commissioner Joe Moss bows his head in prayer before a meeting Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2023, in West Olive.
In a new filing Tuesday, Oct. 3, in U.S. Western District Court, Rev. Jared Cramer of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven claims Board Chair Joe Moss is using his position to "endorse a particular set of religious beliefs and exclude a particular set of religious beliefs" and therefore "is discriminating against certain religious beliefs," which is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Cramer claims he first asked Commissioner Roger Bergman, who represents the city of Grand Haven, to join the historically practiced rotation of area faith leaders who provide the invocation at the twice-monthly board meetings.
According to corporation counsel guidelines written in 2022 — obtained via a Freedom of Information Act request by the Michigan Association of Civil Rights Activists in January — invocation guidelines say the speaker: must not denigrate any viewpoints on religion nor proselytize towards a religion should focus on themes related to the meeting
In the guidance, former corporation counsel Doug VanEssen said the board should "avoid anything in writing or lists of approved officiants."
Cramer claims the board created a "schedule of local pastors" for 2023. The schedule was not disclosed in the evidence. The Sentinel has filed a Freedom of Information Act request for it.
The county's guidance also says the invocation "should be rotated among all members of the board or commission and be limited to the member or the member's guest."
That isn't being followed, according to Cramer.
"Commissioner Bergman advised Rev. Cramer that Defendant Moss alone now selects those chosen togive the invocation before commission meetings," Cramer wrote in the filing through his attorney Sarah Riley-Howard of Grand Rapids-based Pinsky Smith.
Cramer said he emailed Moss on May 9 requesting an opportunity to lead the invocation. Copied on the communication, Cramer said, were administrator John Gibbs and two other commissioners, although it wasn't immediately clear which ones.
After receiving no response, Cramer again emailed on Aug. 30 and sent the request by mail to Moss. Again, there was no response and no invitation to lead a future invocation.
Moss founded the far-right fundamentalist group Ottawa Impact in 2021 after he took issue with controversial pre-K-6 school mask mandates during the COVID-19 pandemic. He launched the political action committee under the premise of "defending parental rights" and to "thwart tyranny" within the state and federal government.
Moss and OI co-founder Sylvia Rhodea captured what is now a six-seat majority on the 11-member Ottawa County Board of Commissioners in 2022.
Cramer said, since Moss' election, he has "dedicated some of his efforts on undoing the county’s efforts at inclusion" and "has championed an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda."
Cramer points to several decisions Moss and the OI-controlled board have made, including attempting to hold up a grant awarded to an LGBTQ+ advocacy group in May.
Cramer has been a visible advocate for the inclusion of members of the LGBTQ+ community, particularly within the church. Cramer leads St. John’s Episcopal Church, which "holds itself out as a place of worship that is welcoming to all, including those in the LGBTQ+ community," according to the filing.
Cramer also helps lead the Ottawa Coalition of Unifying Congregations, a group of now 12 area congregations and 22 pastors who are pushing back against Ottawa Impact's policies of de-emphasizing diversity, equity and inclusion. For more information, visit webelong-oc.org.
Cramer said he was inspired to act after watching events unfold this year that he found disturbing.
"I was just watching as things got worse, you know ... I was naïve," Cramer said. "I thought when these Ottawa Impact people came in, I was sure I would disagree with what they did. But I thought that the standards and decorum would still be followed. So, as it's just gotten worse over there, I finally decided that this was no longer a side issue. This goes right to the core of what it means to be a Christian living in America."
He said it's frustrating the invocations are no longer diverse amongst congregations and messages.
"My colleagues are good people," he said. "And they want to say things and be a voice and they're being shut out. And it just drives me bonkers when I tune in to the invocation, acting as though this is Christianity. ... It's such a blatant misrepresentation of the teachings of Jesus."
Cramer is asking the court to allow him to lead an invocation at a future meeting, as well as an undisclosed amount of punitive damages and attorney fees.
Other lawsuits – Religious discrimination isn't the board's only problem.
Ottawa County Health Officer Adeline Hambley sued the board in February, claiming the OI majority attempted to unlawfully demote her and repeatedly interfered with her state-authorized health duties.
On April 18, a circuit court judge in Muskegon granted Hambley a preliminary injunction that allowed her to remain in her role until a trial could take place later this year. The Michigan Court of Appeals denied commissioners the right to appeal the lower court’s ruling, but later granted a narrow window to appeal certain aspects — mainly whether the judge made legal errors in reaching her decision.
Oral arguments before a three-judge appeals panel are scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11, in Grand Rapids.
Meanwhile, Moss filed notice Sept. 27 for a removal hearing planned for Oct. 19. During the hearing, the board will seek Hambley's termination for "incompetence, misconduct and neglect of duty."
Last week, Hambley's attorney — also Sarah Riley-Howard — filed a request with the court for an emergency order to stay, or delay, the termination hearing. On Wednesday, Oct. 4, the court denied the request with no additional commentary.
In a separate lawsuit, four residents sued the board claiming commissioners violated Michigan's Open Meetings Act when they made several controversial decisions at the board's first meeting in January — including the vote to "demote" Hambley. That case is awaiting oral arguments before the COA after the residents appealed a lower court's ruling granting the board's request to dismiss the lawsuit.