February 05, 2014 - By Meg Peters
Review Staff Writer
Despite a long standing tradition in Orion Township of having short invocations before council meetings, there has been a dialogue for the past several weeks between those who support and those who are against the prayers.
That dialogue has escalated, whether in township meetings, on Facebook, or in the "Letters to the Editor" section of The Lake Orion Review, regarding the separation of church and state.
One community member has been a bit louder than the rest.
Lake Orion resident Dave Duenow is offended council members have led prayers during the meetings, and reminded council Monday night at the board meeting when asking them to look up "invocation" and let it sit in the back of their minds.
Last week, Duenow submitted multiple requests for public documents under the state's Freedom of Information Act, requesting a list of the people who have said the prayers for the township, along with their denominations.
He also has filed FOIA requests seeking documents regarding Clerk Penny Shults and Treasurer Mark Thurber, in what he said are efforts to "get rid of both of them."
"I'm a Christian and I believe in God. I just don't believe in one person praying to their God," Duenow said. "If you did what she did, the clerk, your God would strike you dead. Her God won't because he's speaking through her."
"And the thing is, it's not legal what they're doing," Duenow said.
Orion Township attorney Dan Kelly said the township is acting according to the current U.S. Supreme Court case law. "In my opinion, in this case, nobody is violating any laws," he said.
The current case law, Marsh vs. Chambers, states, "To invoke divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, a violation of the Establishment Clause; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country," (Pp. 786-792).
The Supreme Court is also currently assessing the Jones vs. Hamilton County case in the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The issue in this case is whether private invocators of Hamilton County, Tenn. are violating the First Amendment Establishment Clause by commencing county meetings with a prayer.
While Kelly believes the township is acting according to law, he said the Supreme Court could further clarify this by next fall.
Kelly and Township Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Coordinator Julie Steimel collaborated over the last week to determine what documents could be produced for Duenow's FOIA requests.
Duenow submitted four different requests containing six to nine questions or requests each.
A response letter was sent to him in the mail Monday, and according to Steimel, about one quarter of Duenow's questions were answered with public documents.
"FOIA pertains to actual public documents, so we were only able to provide documents to maybe about 25 percent of the things he requested. He requested things like passwords, or there were just these sentences with things like, 'why this or why that', and there's nothing to answer there," Steimel said.
Duenow requested access to and passwords for the Shults' and Thurber's personal computers used for township purposes along with lists of contacts called with township cell phones; passwords of the clerk's/treasurer's assistants; personal property taxes for both Shults and Thurber; 2013 progress reports for all the employees of the Shults' office; Thurber's voting record on all Planning Commission presentations for years 2012 to present; the actual weekly work schedules for Thurber since elected including hours physically on the job in the township; the current contract with the Teamsters 214; the financial gains that have been accumulated for each month/year the Orion Center has been open. He also alleged that there were hirings that he claimed were based on nepotism.
Kelly said the township is not required to give answers to questions. It can only provide public documents.
He explained that the township does not have to create a document to satisfy a request, nor does it have to obtain documents from other agencies that might carry that information.
Kelley said the township would provide documents to requests when they are appropriate and follow the law.
"If it's personal, it's not FOIA-able," Kelley said. For example, "there's not a document that would include a password. That's in the head of whoever created that password," he said.
As far as prayer at the township meetings, Shults said she is continuing what former township clerk Jill Bastian started before she left office.
Bastian sent out a list to community churches and parishes asking if priests, reverends or church members had any interest in praying before township meetings, and she made a schedule.
Shults continued that schedule, and already has 14 prayer-leaders signed up for 2014. She is scheduling Lance Mermell representing the Jewish faith for an upcoming invocation.
"If there are people who would like to pray, they just need to contact me," Shults said. She can be reached at 248-391-0304 ext. 104.
"By no means has this attempted to exclude anyone. It's attempted to unite the community in prayer."
But, Duenow said he plans to bring the ACLU to upcoming meetings in an attempt to halt the praying, which has been a tradition in the township for as far back as Township Supervisor Chris Barnett could research.
"Orion Township was established in 1835, and as far as I can tell an invocation has been a part of every board meeting," he said. "I also believe that the current Supreme Court standard supports prayers at board meetings. It's not our intention to offend residents or meeting attenders. In fact the invocation is intended to acknowledge and express the board's respect for the diversity of religious denominations and faiths represented and practiced among citizens of Orion.
"It's a time-honored tradition in our community, and I'm not going to be the one that ends it," Barnett said.
It cost the township a little under $10 to produce the documents for Duenow's FOIA requests, and they did not need a time extension in order to do so.
Duenow has two options if he is not satisfied with the documents provided by FOIA coordinator Steimel.
He can either make a formal appeal for the documents to the board of trustees during a meeting, which they would have to respond to with a separate hearing.
Or, Duenow can sue the township in Oakland Circuit Court if he believes that a document wasn't produced that should have been.