NEW ORLEANS"The ACLU of Louisiana was literally on the way to the courthouse yesterday when the City of New Orleans and Mayor C. Ray Nagin rescinded their endorsement and sponsorship of an unlawful "Ecumenical Prayer Service." Furthermore, they reversed field and agreed to issue an invitation to the ACLU's client, New Orleans Secular Humanist Association (NOSHA), after its president had been repeatedly ignored and turned away. That ensured inclusion of a non-religious voice in the city-sponsored Katrina anniversary event on August 29, renamed Citywide Remembrance, Renewal and Rebirth Service.
"City officials knew or should have known about the First Amendment's requirement for government neutrality in matters related to religion and the ban on viewpoint discrimination," said Joe Cook, Executive Director, ACLU of Louisiana. "Both NOSHA president Harry Greenberger and the ACLU had made good faith efforts to resolve this matter without litigation, but the City turned a deaf ear over the past month until the ACLU lawyers were at the courthouse door."
Nearly a month ago Ms. Emeline Desse in the Mayor's office received notice of Mr. Greenberger's concerns and a desire for accommodation of non-religious residents in the planned event. He reminded her that such persons, including himself, had "too suffered the effects of the hurricane and flood and deserve recognition, condolences and encouragement." Ms. Desse referred Mr. Greenberger to Ms. Clover Davis, who never responded to his email inquiry as of August 21.
Then, on August 11, Mr. Greenberger sent an email directly to Mayor Nagin outlining his frustration and lack of satisfaction with his appointees regarding the prayer service. That prompted a call from Larry Bagneris, Executive Director of the Human Relations Commission, on August 16. At that time, Mr. Greenberger made another plea for "non-believers," now making up 14% of the population, as well as believers in the Establishment and Free Speech clauses of the Constitution. Finally on August 18, the word came from Mr. Bagneris that Ms. Davis had denied the request because it was not appropriate to have secular speakers at a religious prayer session. At that point and with nowhere else to turn, Mr. Greenberger called the ACLU for help last Friday.
That led to the chain of events, which played out yesterday with the City Attorney's office negotiating with Mr. Greenberger's counsel for an out of court settlement. Had city officials and the Mayor not chosen to ignore their constitutional duty to uphold the law, the ACLU's involvement would not have been necessary.
"The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment has spared our nation the sectarian religious strife that has plagued other countries for centuries largely because of the strict neutrality required of government in matters related to religion," Cook goes on to say. "City officials ought to get out of the public piety business and govern as required by the Constitution, which has allowed the United States to become the most religiously diverse nation in the world."
Cooperating Attorney Ron Wilson and Staff Attorney Katie Schwartzmann serve as counsel for the plaintiff.