Prayer lawsuit; Hamilton Commission considers 'opening opportunity'
HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- "We come together in the name of your son Jesus, to exalt your name..."
Hamilton County Commissioners have opened their third meeting with prayer since two citizens filed suit in U.S. District Court to stop the practice.
In two minutes, Pastor Calvin Nunley, of Soddy Daisy's Christ Family Church, invokes Jesus and the Lord three times each, God five times, and the Commissioner's 'courage' once.
"To allow prayer to be made," Pastor Nunley says.
But when he references tough times and speaks of people who would be "unthankful, unholy and ungrateful," prayer opponent Steven Disbrow claims he might as well be attacking his family, calling his son Logan, 10, and Maia, 12, evil.
"Not only did they (Commissioners) not reprimand this person after he finished, and calls us all those names," Disbrow says. "They rewarded him!"
Commissioners presented Pastor Nunley with a plaque, paid for with taxpayer dollars.
"It's gone on at least as long as there's been a Commission," Chairman Larry Henry says. "The cost of paperweights and things like that, it's very minimal."
And it likely is legal too, according to the attorney for those seeking to end the Invocations.
"The Supreme Court has said that's okay," attorney Robin Flores. "And it goes back to the first Continental Congress when the chaplain was paid."
Prayer supporters also have cited the Founding Fathers to counter claims that Commissioners are endorsing Christianity.
"The First Amendment has nothing to do with keeping religion out of government," Jim Rogers says. "It has everything to do with keeping government out of religion."
Next Tuesday, Commissioners will consider a policy change, using suggestions from the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that defends legislative bodies and others embroiled in church-and-state Constitutional issues.
Based out of Scottsdale, Arizona, the ADF has offered to represent Commissioners' interests in the federal lawsuit 'free of charge,' according to County Attorney Rheubin Taylor.
"This policy will open it up, and make it more even ground for everyone," Chairman Henry says.
If adopted, Commissioners no longer would choose who offers the prayer. Rather, Hamilton County would compile a list of clergy that's "all inclusive, reflecting diverse congregations" and would issue invitations to offer the Invocations.
"It'd be first-come, first-serve," Henry says.
Clergy would receive no compensation. They'd be limited to five minutes, wouldn't be allowed to proselytize, and would be forbidden from disparaging other faiths or beliefs.
Flores hedges on whether the compromise would meet Court muster.
"My clients are adamant this is a no-brainer. That's why we're taking this to Court."
U.S. District Judge Sandy Mattice will hear a motion for an injunction, to stop the prayers immediately, July 26.
Flores' client, Tommy Coleman, says one solution could end the battle immediately.
"We do not want to ban anybody from praying," plaintiff Tommy Coleman says. "It's about not favoring one religion over another."
"We want them to pray to their Gods. And doing it with a moment of silence is respectful of everyone."