Judge wants more info before prayer decision - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Judge wants more info before deciding whether to stop Commission prayers

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- For the next couple of weeks at least, Hamilton County Commissioners may continue to open their meetings with prayers invoking Jesus, God, or another deity or higher power.

Federal Judge Harry Sandlin Mattice Jr. has given their lawyers, and those suing to block those prayers, until August 8 to file briefs before he decides whether to order those prayers stopped until the case itself goes to trial.

"We're making it (the prayers) more inclusive," Commission Chairman Larry Henry says. "We had it inclusive to begin with, I thought, but evidently we didn't."

Commissioners modified the prayer policy July 3, after Hamilton County residents Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones filed the federal suit, arguing that officially-sanctioned, led prayers are unconstitutional because they violate First Amendment provisions barring an establishment of religion.

"We feel excluded, we feel marginalized, we feel pressured," Jones says.

Thursday, the Court heard from Jones, who identifies as an atheist, Coleman, a secular humanist, and Atria Laham, a Muslim.

"What I felt wasn't the feeling it was intended to give," Laham testified, recalling a Commission meeting in which she heard the Christian Lord's Prayer during the invocation.

"I would feel uncomfortable hearing an Islamic prayer in that setting, because it would exclude somebody."

"The only way to be truly inclusive is to give a moment of silence," Jones says.

After July 3, Commissioners ordered their staff to draw up a list of clergy and congregations, to which they issued invitations to offer a prayer, moment of silence or solemn message to open Commission meetings.

The Commission's legislative administrator, Chris Hixson, testified that she compiled the mailing list using listings in the Yellow Pages, and included religious organizations that the Internal Revenue Service has classified as charitable organizations.

"That changes nothing," Coleman says. "They had no intention of coming up with a policy. Commissioner Henry even said we're going to continue doing what we're doing."

The Commission's initial invitation list included 7 non-Christian organizations; four Jewish, one Muslim, one Baha'I, and a pastor in the non-deity Universal Life Church.

Would Chairman Henry offer an invitation to a Wiccan, Pagan or Satanist?

"Would I feel comfortable, probably not," Henry says. "But we'd be inclusive. We'd allow them to come. We wouldn't deny them the right to be there."

A Chattanooga attorney argued the Commission's case Thursday. But the Christian-based legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) is covering the court costs, and created the template for the Commission's modified prayer policy.

"The policy has been upheld by numerous courts already," ADF attorney Brett Harvey says. "It's an open invitation to allow a wide, diverse mix of religious groups to pray consistently with the dictates of their own conscience."

A solemn message, Harvey says, could invoke "the words of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, it doesn't have to be prayer."

"But invoking a deity does not violate the establishment clause. It never has."

Judge Mattice has asked both sides to address that issue in their supplemental filings. Upholding the policy on its face, not in how it's applied, he says, could require him to find that a sectarian, or faith-based prayer, is constitutional.

"Would a policy that makes any attempt at inclusion be a Fool's Errand, because you can never be inclusive enough," Judge Mattice asks the attorneys.

"Does that narrow my choice to throwing out the whole policy totally, or accepting it totally?"

"You can't do it (prayer). Can't do it at all," plaintiffs' attorney Robin Flores says. "And our alternative, the moment of silence, has been rejected."

But his client, Brandon Jones, says he wouldn't object to prayers being offered during the portion of Commission meetings set aside for Public Comment, even if the speaker were a member of clergy, and even if he or she asked Commissioners and the audience to join.

"That's not official endorsement by the government, and that's the difference," Jones says. "The issue isn't about me not wanting to hear prayer. iIt's about me not wanting my government to endorse religion."

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