CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Two men seeking to stop public prayer before Hamilton County Commission meetings have filed an appeal of a federal judge’s refusal to issue a temporary injunction.
Attorney Robin Flores told the Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/TsT5NG ) he filed the appeal Monday on behalf of his clients, Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones.
The filing with the U.S. Court of Appeals came after U.S. District Court Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice declined in August to issue a restraining order. Mattice said it was too soon to determine whether new prayer rules adopted by commissioners were inclusive of faiths besides Christianity.
County legal counsel Steve Duggins and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor said Tuesday they couldn’t comment because they had not yet read the appeal brief.
Coleman and Jones filed suit in June.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — A federal judge in Chattanooga said Thursday that he needs more information to decide whether to halt prayers at Hamilton County Commission meetings.
U.S. District Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice heard arguments as two local men sought to bar the prayers at the start of the government meetings while their lawsuit is argued in court.
Mattice set an Aug. 8 deadline for the parties to submit briefs on the constitutionality of the practice.
“I do believe the community deserves an answer on this,” Mattice said, indicating he would likely rule early next month on the request for a temporary injunction.
Plaintiff Tommy Coleman testified Thursday that he felt excluded from the meetings because of the prayers.
“I felt excluded, unwelcome, out of place,” Coleman told the court.
After the hearing, plaintiffs’ attorney Robin Flores said he was pleased by the outcome.
“If he had made a knee-jerk ruling from the bench, I would have been shocked,” Flores said.
The other man pressing the lawsuit, Brandon Jones, told reporters afterward he is optimistic.
“I really felt we presented our points well and that the judge is going to take our arguments into consideration,” Jones said.
Earlier this month, commission members unanimously approved a formal policy that invites clergy to offer prayer.
On Monday in Knoxville, the Knox County Commission voted 10-1 in adopting a written policy on public prayer before their meetings.
The Knox County Commission will continue to pray each month before formal, voting meetings, reports The News Sentinel.
The panel in a 10-1 vote Monday adopted a written policy for regular invocations. About 10 residents spoke against the measure, most suggesting that the board instead hold a moment of silence.
But, after roughly 90 minutes of discussion, members said they’re not changing a thing — other than to put it in writing.
“Each person has the opportunity to opt out (of participating), but I don’t see anyone up here offering a specific religion,” said Commissioner Mike Brown. “If (someone finds it) offensive, then they can leave or wait until after the devotion is over to come into the meeting.”
The commissioner added: “The majority of (Knox Countians) reflect the views of each of us sitting on this podium and we would be remiss if we didn’t go along with the majority of our constituents in our districts.”
Larry Rhodes, an atheist who was raised a Southern Baptist, said the county will “spend a lot of time and money” to defend the policy in court. He suggested that prayer is not “something that represents all (of the county’s residents) and will leave out a growing segment of the population.”
He said the commission’s approval will “send a message that real citizens” are only those “who support the majority.”
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — The Hamilton County Commission has ejected two men who are opposed to the body opening meetings with prayer.
According to the Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/N5eIlk ), Aaron Moyer was speaking during a public comment period Thursday when Commission Chairman Larry Henry told him to sit down. Moyer continued to speak and was escorted out of the chamber by a deputy.
The newspaper reported Tommy Coleman, who has filed a lawsuit to halt the prayers, was sitting quietly when he also was taken out of the meeting room.
Moyer said he was objecting to a commission decision to accept free legal representation from the Alliance Defense Fund in the lawsuit.
Coleman’s lawyer said his lawsuit now includes violation of Fourth Amendment rights which guard against unreasonable seizure.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — Members of the Hamilton County Commission have approved a new policy on prayer, indicating the intent to continue allowing public prayer at meetings.
Two local men have filed a federal lawsuit and asked for an injunction to prevent the commission from letting people pray out loud as meetings begin. A hearing is scheduled for July 26 on the injunction request.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/N6Og8t ) reported commission members on Tuesday unanimously approved a policy that calls for creation of a countywide clergy database from which speakers will be invited to lead what commissioners termed a “prayer, reflective moment of silence, or a short solemnizing message,” at each weekly commission meeting.
The men filing the lawsuit have asked the commission to hold a moment of silence, rather than the Christian prayers.
Commissioners said the new policy should allow for diversity of opinion and belief.
However, plaintiff Tommy Coleman says the new policy “is pure propaganda.”
The Knox County Commission on Monday will look at adopting a written policy regarding prayer before board meetings, a move officials hope will protect them against lawsuits, like the one recently filed in Chattanooga.
From the News Sentinel:
Commission Chairman Mike Hammond said he will add the resolution to Monday’s agenda. He said it’s in response to a June 15 lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court against the Hamilton County Commission.
(Note: Previous post HERE)
“Right after I became chair two years ago, I had a meeting with a group of individuals who asked me if I would consider having a moment of silence instead of regular prayer. I told them no,” Hammond said. “Then I saw this thing out of Chattanooga and I felt it may be worthwhile for us to look at it and make sure we’re compliant with the law. We need to establish some guidelines.”
The commissioner said he doesn’t want a moment of silence, which is what the Knox County Board of Education does, because he feels like prayer before meetings “is a part of the history of our country and I feel like we need to carry on the tradition.”
…Knox County Law Director Joe Jarret, whose office crafted a resolution at Hammond’s request, said Hamilton County doesn’t have a “coherent, consistent policy … where invocations are concerned,” which is the primary issue.
“Our courts permit such invocation during public meetings, albeit, they seem to favor those entities that have a written, consistent, non-exclusive policy,” he said. “The Knox County Commission’s current policy is, in my legal opinion, legal and inclusive (although) I would be a lot more comfortable were their practices reduced to writing and formally adopted by the County Commission.”
The resolution that the commission will discuss on Monday includes a number of details on how the board will pray. An invocation will be listed on the agenda but no one on the commission or in attendance will be required to participate.
The commissioner who leads the prayer will also do so “in his or her capacity as a private citizen.”
Two Hamilton County residents sued county commissioners and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor in federal court today for prayers the body holds before its meetings, according to the Chattanooga TFP.
The complaint, filed by Attorney Robin Flores on behalf of Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, argues that the prayers violate rights guaranteed by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
In May, Patrick Elliott, an attorney with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to commissioners, asking them to discontinue prayers before meetings, citing the regular use of “in Jesus’ name” to conclude official prayers.
Commissioners have taken no official action to consider the letter or change their practice.
Taylor last week said he’d reviewed the letter and would advise commissioners at the appropriate time. The following day, he personally led the prayer, closing with a similar invocation of Christ
Note: The practice of opening meetings with prayer, of course, is widespread among Tennessee political bodies — the rule rather than the exception. The state House and Senate, for example, have a “minister of the day” who opens each session with a prayer.
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (AP) — A secular group has asked the Hamilton County Commission to discontinue opening its meetings with prayer.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s letter to commissioners on Monday stated a local person complained about the practice.
The group argues the local prayer practices “flagrantly exceed” constraints of a 1983 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press (http://bit.ly/KfDcnK ) reported Commission Chairman Larry Henley asked County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to review the issue.
The Freedom From Religion Foundation website says the group promotes the constitutional principal of separation of church and state.
Thirty-six members of Congress are urging Vanderbilt University to exempt religious organizations from its “all-comers” policy, saying it discriminates against faith-based groups, reports The Tennessean.
Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus said Monday they have sent a letter pressing Vanderbilt officials to exempt campus religious organizations from the policy, which requires that university-recognized groups allow any student to join and run for office — even if a student doesn’t share the group’s central beliefs.
Vanderbilt adopted the policy after a Christian fraternity expelled a member who is gay.
“We are deeply troubled that Vanderbilt would use its freedom as a private institution to create a nondiscrimination policy that discriminates against religious student groups,” the lawmakers wrote.
The letter was dated Thursday and signed by Tennessee Republican Reps. Marsha Blackburn, Diane Black, Stephen Fincher and Chuck Fleischmann. It’s the second letter the caucus has sent to university officials on the policy. The lawmakers said Vanderbilt’s decision to exempt single-sex organizations — such as fraternities and sororities — but not religious ones “suggests hostility on the part of Vanderbilt toward religious student groups.”
UPDATE NOTE: David Fowler, who heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee, issued a statement hailing the congressional letter. It’s below.
By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The Senate passed a proposal Thursday that would allow teachers and other school workers to participate in prayer groups and other religious activities on school grounds, so long as they are initiated by students.
Sponsors of the bill brought it in part to support “See You at the Pole” gatherings, where students and their parents gather at school flag poles to pray.
The measure was approved 29-1. The companion bill unanimously passed the House 93-0 earlier this month. Before it can go to the governor, the measure must go back to the House to approve an amendment that was added.
The legislation allows school personnel to participate in such activities as long as they don’t carry into the classroom or conflict with the assignments of the participant.