New Commission policy fuels prayer fight after speakers removed - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

New Commission policy fuels prayer fight after speakers removed

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- First use of the Hamilton County Commission's new 'policy' has added ammunition to the Federal Court suit to stop opening Commission meetings with prayer.

"We have to look at it and amend the complaint," plaintiffs' attorney Robin Flores says. "We need to add a Fourth Amendment complaint of unreasonable seizure."

A Hamilton County deputy, assigned to provide security, removed Flores' client, Tommy Coleman, and another prayer opponent, Aaron Moyer, from the Commission meeting Thursday after another Moyer, ignored Chairman Larry Henry's directive to rap up his remarks.

"It was unlawful," Coleman said later.  "I demand an apology."

Off camera, the Deputy told Channel 3 that she believed Henry had told her to remove both men.

But Henry maintains she was mistaken.

"It wasn't the content of his (Moyer's) speech," Henry says. "And I didn't want Coleman removed, but she (the Deputy) took it upon herself. That was totally her."

Henry first asked Moyer to wrap up his remarks after Moyer had spoken for four-and-one-half minutes, quoting a Christian friend whom he claims considers the Commission a 'den of vipers'. Moyer also labeled several of the Commission's actions "un-Christ-like."

The order for removal came after Moyer spoke for another minute-and-a-half.

"He was cutting into the other speakers' time," Henry says. "We allot speakers ten minutes, per subject."

But the Commission does not require those wishing to make 'Public Comments' to register or to "sign-in" prior to speaking, so Commissioners have no idea how many intend to discuss any given subject.

Based on its camera's internal clock, Channel 3 has calculated that Coleman's opening remarks lasted approximately 2 minutes, 15 seconds.  Moyer, who spoke next, took six minutes before the Deputy removed him.

Thus, the two had taken 8 minutes, 15 seconds of the ten minutes allotted to discuss 'Prayer.'

Henry referenced that the two had 'exhausted almost all your time', when he allowed activist June Griffin only one minute to express her views.

That left Pastor Charles Wysong only 45 seconds to make his case that Coleman and Moyer are 'eggshell plaintiffs' with no real grievance to claim that prayers invoking Jesus Christ  violate First Amendment prohibitions to recognize an 'establishment of religion.'

By Channel 3's calculations, the Commission allowed Pastor Wysong two-and-one-half minutes.

Following the meeting, Griffin accused Coleman and Moyer of violating her rights, and those of the Commission.

"You're going to jail," Griffin told them. "The law requires jail and a $10,000 fine for denying those rights, under the Ninth and Tenth Amendments (powers reserved for the states and the people)."

Griffin is seeking to intervene in the federal lawsuit.  The plaintiffs have asked for a court order to stop prayers at Commission meetings until the full case is heard. Judge Harry Mattice will hear those arguments July 26.

The Commission's new prayer policy calls for choosing clergy to deliver invocations based on how quickly they respond to an 'open invitation'.

Based on records Channel 3 obtained,  staffers mailed out invitations to 548 'congregations' July 2.

Only seven of those congregations are non-Christians;  four Jewish, one Islamic, one Baha'I, and one as 'Universal Life.'

As of Thursday, six congregations had responded, all of them Christian.

Silverdale Baptist Church Pastor Tony Walliser delivered Thursday's invocation, ending by asking for blessings in Jesus' name.

"You are now in the business of regulating both business and prayer," Coleman told Commissioners afterward. "Stop violating the First Amendment rights of Hamilton County citizens."

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