SIOUX CITY | Woodbury County supervisors declined Tuesday to accept free help from a national law firm that would have summarized the legal implications on the board's practice of observing a moment of silence at the start of its weekly board meetings.
Board Chairman Matthew Ung stressed the supervisors did not consider the offer due to a complaint from an individual or group.
The board began observing a moment of silence at meetings several years ago. The supervisors and meeting attendees typically bow their heads and some silently pray during that time, which usually lasts about 10 seconds.
In an interview, Ung said he decided to revisit the practice after attending a church conference a few months ago where speakers shared information on public policy topics.
"One of the attorneys from First Liberty Institute spoke about how they had been involved in litigation regarding various types of invocation practices at local government meetings. I introduced myself and the firm offered to do a free assessment of the current board’s practices," Ung said.
On the organization's website, First Liberty Institute notes that since 1997 it "is the largest legal organization in the nation dedicated exclusively to protecting religious liberty for all Americans...If an American’s religious freedom is threatened, First Liberty stands ready to assist."
Another portion of the site shares that the group is versed to protect religious freedom in the public arena: "First Liberty Institute defends people of all faiths who are facing legal retribution for expressing their religious beliefs in public. At First Liberty, we equip people with the knowledge they need to safeguard their rights, and are committed to restoring those rights when they are violated."
During Tuesday's board meeting, the supervisors ultimately decided not to go into closed session, as Ung recommended, to hear the input of Ken Klukowski, Senior Counsel & Director of Strategic Affairs for First Liberty.
Klukowski, who traveled from the East Coast, said there is "no clear (judicial) precedent one way or the other" existing for judges to rule on moments of silence in public meetings.
In today's politically-charged environment, Klukowski said it is possible an outside group could file a lawsuit on the Woodbury County moment of silence in order "to create a legal episode." He further said "a hostile judge" could put the county practice at risk.
Soon into the discussion, Supervisor Jeremy Taylor questioned Ung several times on why there was concern with the moment of silence and why the outside legal firm was needed, since the county has its own legal counsel in the County Attorney's Office.
Taylor, who is a chaplain in the U.S. Army, said he presumed the issue had been put on the agenda by Ung because the moment of silence might be taken by some people to reference "public prayer."
Assistant County Attorney Joshua Widman, who attended Tuesday's meeting, advised the supervisors that state law would permit the board to discuss the matter in closed session only if a litigation is underway or imminent.
Ung responded that he believes legal action could be imminent.
"What makes you think it is imminent?" Taylor asked.
"Advice received from First Liberty," Ung answered. "I want the board to hear (in closed session) what I have heard."
During the meeting, Taylor called seeking outside advice now as "putting the cart before the horse."
Ung was the sole supervisors who wanted to hold the closed session to discuss the topic with Klukowski, who would not air his assessment of the silent moment in public. Taylor, Rocky De Witt, Marty Pottebaum and Keith Radig all voted against accepting the pro bono services of First Liberty Institute
Ung said he was "disappointed" with the vote.
"Well, thank you for flying from D.C., to see our courthouse," he said to Klukowski, who also frequently writes for the conservative Breitbart website.
After the meeting, Klukowski told the Journal, "Proactive planning is exactly what voters should want in a leader, and I commend Chairman Ung."