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Man who filed 'In God We Trust' lawsuit against Wood County cites scripture

By Richard Yeakley
Oct. 6, 2012 at 11 p.m.

HAWKINS - An East Texas man who filed a lawsuit against Wood County over the practice of opening commissioners court meetings with prayer is anything but an atheist. Charles Frederick Scott III considers himself a godly man and studies the Bible religiously.

He has filed a lawsuit in Wood County State District Court, seeking removal of the motto "In God We Trust" from the Wood County commissioners courtroom and to forbid opening meetings with prayer. The lawsuit alleges the county is violating the U.S. Constitution.

"I am just as much a confirmed, committed, conservative Christian as anybody else, and more so than most because I have looked into the book," Scott said.

The retired pastor said he has lived in his home north of Hawkins with his wife and daughter without a job for 25 years, surviving off his land. They grow crops and raise birds - chickens and pigeons - for food. They use solar panels to power a light bulb, fan and TV to watch the nightly news.

The couple make the five-mile trek to the Hawkins library once a week or every other week to check email - even though they have no car or phone to stay in contact with the outside world.

"There is a scripture that says, 'Come out from among them and be you separate'... And as a result we live out here; we have no utility bills, we have no debts, we have no payments, we have no umbilical cords. No cords that anybody can cut, no chains that anybody could pull. We just made it about us and God," Scott said.

It is his devotion to this understanding of biblical Christianity that made Scott file the lawsuit, he said.

The crux of his legal argument is commissioners cannot display "In God We Trust" or pray before meetings if their motivation is religious.

Scott also believes it is a violation of the oath of any councilman or commissioner to protect and preserve the U.S. Constitution, if the person has made an oath to God. He sees these two oaths in direct conflict.

"It's the hypocrisy of saying that you support the constitution, when the constitution and the Bible conflict; it's impossible to do it," Scott said. "The constitution was not founded on Christian principles."

Scott said the idea of a republic is repugnant to God, who rules in a kingdom.

A hearing is set Oct. 16 in Tyler federal court, where a judge will decide whether to approve or deny a motion for summary judgment filed by attorneys on behalf of the county on grounds the lawsuit is frivolous.

In May, the Wood County commissioners agreed to retain services from the Alliance Defense Fund and Liberty Institute for representation in the lawsuit.

The question of "In God We Trust" and prayer in government meetings has been historically challenged by atheists and agnostics who feel the inscriptions are a government endorsement of a particular religion.

In March 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider the case of Californian Michael Newdow, an atheist, who asked to remove the nation's motto from coins on grounds that the nation's founders believed man's rights came directly from a supreme authority.

East Texas State Rep. Bryan Hughes has joined with the firms in defense of the county.

"The law is really clear. Legislative bodies in America have the right to open in prayer. The men who wrote the constitution and wrote the first amendment were members of legislative bodies that opened in prayer," Hughes said.

Hughes, who says he is a Christian, said he went to law school to stand up for cases such as this.

It is not only permissible but proper, Hughes said, that Christians and faith are involved in government.

"In America, we each have the right to worship God as we see fit, to interpret the Bible as we see fit. I understand that that is how he reads the Bible. That is not how I see it at all. America has a long history of Christian people being involved in government, and I am glad," Hughes said.

The inscription of "In God We Trust" can be found in the U.S. and Texas Houses of Representatives and many other courtrooms and council halls across the nation. It was established by law as the national motto in 1956.

But Scott - who is acting as his own attorney in the lawsuit - believes previous cases that upheld the right of a place of governance to display the national motto left the question of motive unanswered.

"All those cases that they cite give the historical, traditional and secular reasons that justify the motto. If it is being put up for religious reasons, you may not do it," Scott said.

The lawsuit will gain traction and has credence in the "Bible Belt" because governing officials are doing it out of religious motivation and not "solemnity and tradition," Scott said.

Michael Smith, an attorney in Marshall, agreed the law is nuanced, because a prayer and inscription can occur, but it cannot cross the line into government endorsing a religion.

"The law is that you can have ceremonial proceedings to underscore the dignity of a public proceeding, but it can't cross the line," Smith said.

Smith also said there could be concerns if the prayer before a meeting became too "sectarian."

In fact, when Smith served on the Marshall City Commission and would pray, he said he worked to make the prayer true to his faith, but generally applicable.

"It's a fairly common practice across the country, and I would believe it's out of solemnity," Smith said.

Scott has said repeatedly that he would share his concerns and come to an agreement with Wood County outside of court, but he said officials have not responded to numerous requests to meet.

The New Testament book of Matthew, Chapter 18, explains how Christians should resolve conflicts with other believers - outside of courts, Scott said. As a pastor, Scott said he taught these practices to his congregation, and is frustrated that county officials, who share his faith, are unwilling to meet.

"That's all I am asking, if we are supposed to be Christians, then let's do it the Christian way. And if they do not agree to that ... then all they are saying is they don't know beans about Christianity," Scott said.

He insisted that his door on CR 3803, about five miles north of Hawkins, is always open.

Hughes explained that there is very little middle ground to come to an agreement, even if the representatives from the county sat down with Scott outside of court.

"There are two positions. Either it opens in prayer or it doesn't. Either they keep the national motto or they don't," Hughes said.

Hughes did, however, say he was glad there was a way Scott could voice his concerns.

"He and I disagree strongly about this, but I am glad that in America we all have the right to seek redress for our grievances," Hughes said.

Scott is confident that come Oct. 16, the judge will hear his argument, and the case will move forward.

"This is the biggest thing that will have happened in my life, and I have got to be up for it spiritually to go up there and do it," Scott said.



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