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Court tosses 'In God' lawsuit against Wood County

By Richard Yeakley
Oct. 16, 2012 at 10 p.m.

Wood County commissioners can pray before sessions and post "In God We Trust" in their courtroom, a state district court judge ruled Tuesday.

District Judge G. Timothy Boswell tossed out a lawsuit filed by a Hawkins man to remove "In God We Trust" and cease opening commissioners court meetings with prayer after the plaintiff failed to show up for the hearing.

Charles Frederick Scott III, who says he is a devout Christian, said he was astonished when he saw Wood County commissioners pray openly before meetings. Scott argued the prayer violated the separation of church and state.

Scott filed the lawsuit in April, saying it was the most important thing he had done in his life.

In two judgments issued Tuesday, Boswell granted the county's motion for a summary judgment and the request to strike down the lawsuit.

"We are very thankful that the district court today followed clearly established precedent recognizing the constitutionality of displaying the national motto and having prayer before the county's meetings," said Jeff Mateer, Liberty Institute general counsel, an organization that helped defend the county against the lawsuit.

Mateer said, although the plaintiff's presence in such a matter is not legally mandatory, he was surprised Scott failed to attend the hearing since the plaintiff had been active in filing motions before Tuesday.

"There has to be clear evidence. The party moving for a summary judgement has the burden of proof," Mateer said.

However, Scott, a retired pastor with no car who lives on property north of Hawkins, had said he was uncertain if he would be able to attend the hearing in the Wood County Courthouse in Quitman because of lack of transportation.

Scott's original lawsuit asked for an injunction to prevent these actions because "the (commissioners) court is in violation of Texas and U.S. Constitutions by its conduct."

The plaintiff determines where the suit is filed, and Texas law allows cases about federal laws to be tried in state courts, Mateer said.

Scott could have filed the lawsuit in federal court, because it dealt with First Amendment freedom of religion concerns; however, he was within his rights to sue in the 402nd District Court of Texas in Quitman.

State Rep. Bryan Hughes, who worked with the Liberty Institute in support of the commissioners court, said he was pleased with the decision.

"I am so glad that we live in a country that still honors the traditions of our founders - the importance of prayer and displaying 'In God We Trust' in the courtroom," Hughes said.

Scott, who lives without a phone, was unavailable for comment late Tuesday.

He has the right to appeal the court's decision.



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