The ACLU of Vermont has sued the town of Franklin for including prayer in its town meeting. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of Marilyn Hackett, a Franklin resident, alleges that the town and its moderator, Timothy Magnant, have violated Vermont's constitution and public accommodations act.

For the last decade, Franklin's meeting has been gaveled to order,  the polls declared open for any Australian ballot items, and the pledge of allegiance recited.  Then, the moderator has invited a local minister to the podium to lead the voters in prayer.

"Article 3 of the Vermont Constitution guarantees that no one may be compelled to attend or support religious worship," explained Julie Kalish of Norwich, an ACLU of Vermont cooperating attorney representing Hackett.  "The problem is that the defendants insist upon including prayer as part of town meeting even though voters like Ms. Hackett must attend town meeting in order to vote on all the warned items."

Working with Kalish as an ACLU cooperating attorney is Bernie Lambek of Zalinger Cameron & Lambek, P.C. of Montpelier. Lambek said: "Franklin’s inclusion of religious worship in town meeting is every bit as unacceptable as forcing voters to listen to a prayer before placing their ballot in the ballot box in November. The Vermont Constitution reflects the fact that from early in our history, this has been a place where everyone’s beliefs can co-exist, whether religious or irreligious. Both Article 3 of our constitution and our more recent public accommodations act ensure that government officials do not use their authority to promote one religious belief over another, or religious beliefs over secular beliefs. Vermonters are tolerant and diverse."

Hackett has tried to get the town and the moderator to change the practice, but to no avail. Last year the town told her that prayer would be kept out of the meeting, but once the meeting was underway, the moderator had the minister pray anyway.

"What’s happening in Franklin is unacceptable," said ACLU Staff Attorney Dan Barrett. "The government has no business deciding which beliefs are better than others, which is why our constitution and public accommodations act forbid the government from forcing Vermonters to attend religious events or treating people differently on the basis of their beliefs."

The suit was filed in the Vermont Superior Court.  The complaint and supporting documents can be found on the ACLU of Vermont's Web site