The decision by U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice not to issue a temporary injunction to stop weekly prayers at Hamilton County Commission meetings is not the final word on the issue. The Wednesday ruling does give, on the surface at least, some hope to both plaintiffs and defendant in the case.
Those who approve of the commission's weekly prayers can argue that Mattice's ruling supports their stand because it allows the invocations to continue. Those who believe the prayers should be stopped can say that the failure to issue an injunction does not doom their case. They point out — correctly — that the judge's ruling indicates that the case raises complex and serious constitutional issues that still must be considered and then addressed.
The decision to allow the prayers to continue, in fact, does not address the merits of the case filed by Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones in June after commissioners refused to honor their request to hold a moment of silence instead of prayers. Wednesday's ruling simply says the request for a temporary injunction did not meet the necessarily high legal standards for such a request to be granted.
The far more important portion of Mattice's multipage ruling suggests that the commission has chosen a difficult path to follow in creating its current policy on public prayer before its meetings. The judge wrote that the county created a policy "authorizing some denominational prayer while taking care to ensure that its public recitation does not proselytize listeners, advance one religion or disparage another, or otherwise affiliate the government with any specific faith.
"In so choosing," he continued, "it has assumed — on its own behalf and on behalf of the citizens and taxpayers of Hamilton County — the responsibility of ensuring that its policy is implemented in a manner that respects both the rights of citizens and the commands of the First Amendment. Whether it will actually affect its policy in such a fashion has yet to be seen."
That remains the crux of the case. Coleman and Jones say they plan to appeal Wednesday's ruling. That, of course, is their right, but many court observers believe an appeal is unlikely to be successful. Indeed, the judge wrote that "litigation will proceed on the merits of Plaintiffs Complaint". If that proves the case, the case likely will move forward in October.
The commission's latest prayer policy may or may not meet the strict mandates of the law governing legislative prayer. County commissioners clearly believe they have a policy in place that meets the standard. The plaintiffs argue to the contrary. The court will decide which side is correct.
Precedent, however, is clear. The law strongly supports traditions of religious freedom and the right to private prayer. It does not sanction officially supported and conducted prayers in public government meetings like a commission meeting. County commissioners could have resolved the issue by ordering a silent prayer or no prayer at all before meetings. They chose not to do so, preferring instead to rewrite policy to suit a constituency largely in favor of public and even sectarian prayer.
Whether that is a violation of the law and a potentially costly mistake for Hamilton County taxpayers ultimately will be determined at trial.
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