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By Eric Stirgus August 3, 2010

Olens says he beat ACLU in Cobb prayer case

Republican attorney general candidate Sam Olens recently fought back against critics questioning his conservative credentials.

He is locked in an Aug. 10 runoff with Preston Smith for the Republican Party's nomination for attorney general. The winner takes on Democrat Ken Hodges in the Nov. 2 general election.

Olens, the former Cobb County Commission chairman, released a campaign ad a few weeks ago to show he's as conservative as the other guys in the race. The television ad focused on the county's legal battle with the American Civil Liberties Union, which sued Olens, the Cobb Board of Commissioners and its Planning Commission primarily over the way invocations are done at their meetings.

"In Cobb County, every meeting opened with a prayer," the ad began with ominous music. "The ACLU objected. Sued."

The voice in the ad says, "Olens took on the ACLU and won!"

Jeffrey Selman, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, has said Olens made erroneous claims in the ad.

He distributed a letter to "set the presently distorted record straight. At best, for all concerned, the decision was a draw." The Olens campaign insists the ad is correct.

So who's right here?

Let's begin with a recap about the case. Selman and four other men filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court in August 2005. The plaintiffs said in the complaint they objected to Cobb's practice of allowing speakers at most of their commission meetings to begin with an invocation with references to a "Christian God -- to the exclusion of all other Gods."

"The plaintiffs are affronted by the defendants' overtly Christian prayers ... and unwelcome religious messages sponsored by the county," the complaint said.

The plaintiffs had a similar complaint about Planning Commission meetings. "Since February 2003, only two non-Christian clergy has given the invocation at the Board of Commissioner Zoning meetings. None of these prayers included sectarian references."

Olens and others countered that legal precedent, specifically a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court case, found the content of prayer is of no concern, unless it is used to disparage one faith or advance another.

The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in 2008 that the Cobb commission did allow religious leaders of other faiths to offer prayers at meetings and that those prayers do not advance one faith or disparage another. The court did rule that the process the Planning Commission used in its invocation process excluded minority faiths during a certain period. Olens did not preside over Planning Commission meetings.

Selman and the plaintiffs contend that the ad is misleading because it suggests that they were upset about Cobb commissioners allowing prayer in their meetings. Olens said the ad is not misleading because Selman gave testimony complaining about prayer in the commission meetings. The Olens campaign provided PolitiFact Georgia with what it considered the smoking gun, eight pages of an April 24, 2006, deposition by Selman.

"If any prayer is specifically identified with any particular religion, whether or not it names the deity of the religion, it would be a prohibited prayer from your approach?" Selman was asked.

"Yes," Selman said, according to the transcript.

"I admit it. That's me talking," Selman, who is Jewish, told PolitiFact Georgia. "But I recognized [those changes were not] going to happen."

Selman gave PolitiFact Georgia the entire 160-page deposition. In it, Selman argues several times in that deposition in favor of allowing people of various religious faiths to give the invocation at County Commission meetings. 

The court did rule in favor of the County Commission, so we find that the claim in the Olens ad that he "took on the ACLU and won" is correct. However, we had trouble with the language in the first part of the ad, "every meeting opened with a prayer. The ACLU objected. Sued." The plaintiffs objected in their complaint to the types of prayer at the beginning of the meeting. That part of the ad suggests the plaintiffs objected to any type of prayer, which PolitiFact Georgia found is misleading. We rate the Olens statement as Half-True.

Our Sources

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "Court OKs Cobb meeting prayers," Oct. 29, 2008

Civil Action 1-05-cv-2075, Gary Pelphrey, Edward Buckner, Roberto Moraes, Wesley Crowe and Jeffrey Selman vs. Cobb County, Sam Olens and Murray Homan; U.S. District Court, Northern District of Georgia, Atlanta Division, Aug. 10, 2005

E-mail from Olens campaign spokeswoman Sheri Kell, July 27, 2010

E-mail from Jeffrey Selman, July 28, 2010

11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling, Oct. 29, 2008

Sam Olens campaign ad, July 6, 2010

Sam Olens letter to Gary Pelphrey, Oct. 1, 2003

"Setting the Cobb County Prayer Case Record Straight" by Jeffrey Selman, July 13, 2010

Telephone interview with Jeffrey Selman, July 28, 2010

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Olens says he beat ACLU in Cobb prayer case

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