Henry: 'No Plan B' as Commissioners await first prayer ruling - WRCBtv.com | Chattanooga News, Weather & Sports

Henry: 'No Plan B' as Commissioners await first prayer ruling

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HAMILTON COUNTY, TN. (WRCB) -- Hickory Valley Christian Church Pastor Gary Armes' opens his invocation to Thursday's Agenda Session of the Hamilton County Commission telling the Heavenly Father that those assembled "approach you today with an attitude of humility."

He makes no mention of the events or the people who have prompted a lawsuit in U.S. District Court to block such prayers on grounds that they violate the 'establishment clause' of the First Amendment.

But he closes with a variation of the very phrases that led to it: "in the name of your son, the Lord Jesus Christ."

Commissioners, and the plaintiffs, are awaiting a decision from federal Judge Harry S. ('Sandy') Mattice, Jr., for a temporary injunction to stop such led-prayers, until the Court hears the full merits of the lawsuit.

"I think we've got a very good case," Commission Chairman Larry Henry tells Channel 3.

Henry makes clear that the Commission will abide by whatever Judge Mattice directs.

"But as far as a Plan B, no we don't (have one)," Henry says. "We've not discussed, we've not gone into any detail at all as to what we would do if the injunction is granted."

The plaintiffs claim the Commission adopted a 'sham' policy after they filed suit.

Prior to the suit, individual Commissioners chose who would deliver the invocations. The revised policy chooses the prayer, or invocation leader, on a first-answer, first-serve basis, after issuing invitations to more than 540 'Churches or Religious Organizations' listed in the commercial ("yellow pages") section of a Chattanooga Area telephone directory.

"To paraphrase a question Judge Mattice asked at our initial hearing, 'if you try to be equal,'isn't that a fool's errand," asks plaintiffs' attorney Robin Flores.

The plaintiffs claim the new policy is unclear, arbitrary, and continues to exclude representatives of non-Christian faiths.

"If the Judge agrees, the whole thing gets tossed out," Flores says. "If we don't get the order, it doesn't change our argument."

Whichever way Judge Mattice rules on Flores' request, Flores expects the loser to appeal.

Chattanooga attorney Stephen Duggins has defended the Commission's position. But the Arizona-based Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) wrote the Commission's modified prayer policy and has promised to cover legal costs.

The ADF describes itself as "a servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system," according to a statement on its web site.

Neither Duggins nor ADF attorney Brett Harvey has responded to Channel 3's requests for comment since the initial hearing July 26.

The plaintiffs have vowed to drop their lawsuit if the Commission were to agree to replace the invocation with a moment of silence.

Such an alternative does not appear an option that Chairman Henry would recommend, or even consider.

"If we can't have prayer, my preference would be, not having a prayer, just having the Pledge (of Allegiance)," he says. "We could have a prayer in our Assembly Room, just the Commissioners, before we go into the meeting place."

Flores maintains that such an option missed the point entirely.

"It is involving the public, it's a public body, not a group of individuals," Flores says.

"We'd have to look at Tennessee's Open Meetings laws, which pretty much say you can't get a quorum of the body (fifty percent of the membership, plus one; or five Commissioners out of nine) together, without it constituting a meeting."

"Because the standard is, what would a reasonable observer think."

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