WENTZVILLE, Mo. — The city of Wentzville has updated its city code and publicly committed to respect freedom of speech and the separation of church and state in a resolution read aloud tonight as part of a lawsuit settlement agreement with the ACLU of Missouri.
In April, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the city of Wentzville for violating a person’s freedom of speech by removing her from a city meeting after she raised concerns about a recently installed “In God We Trust” sign on the front of the city board of aldermen’s dais.
“I am pleased that no one else will be forcefully removed from a public meeting when they speak up about the government’s apparent endorsement of religion,” said Sally Hunt, lawsuit plaintiff. “No one should face retaliation because they shared their opinion in a public forum.”
In February, Hunt was approved to speak during the open forum portion of a Wentzville Board of Aldermen meeting. In her request for permission to speak, she noted she would discuss a recent decision by the mayor and board to install an approximately 16-foot sign that says “In God We Trust” on the dais in Wentzville City Hall without a public vote.
Police officers removed Hunt from the meeting upon order of the mayor, who interrupted her and argued with her during her public comment.
“The right to disagree with public officials without fear of intimidation or retribution is one of the cornerstones of a healthy democracy,” said Tony Rothert, ACLU of Missouri legal director. “We are pleased that the city of Wentzville will protect the First Amendments rights of people who engage with local government.”
Tonight, the Wentzville governing body passed and read aloud a resolution affirming its commitment to uphold First Amendment freedoms and acknowledging that members of the public of any or no religions tradition are welcome to participate in local government. The city also resolved to apply the updated city code evenhandedly, without censoring speech based on its content during the open forum portion of a Wentzville Board of Aldermen meeting.
The settlement also stipulates that Wentzville must advise law enforcement officers assigned to public meetings that they have an independent obligation to uphold the Constitution. Officers will now independently assess if probable cause exists before removing someone from a meeting.