published Friday, July 13th, 2012

Two opposed to prayers at Hamilton County Commission meetings escorted out

A Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy escorts Aaron Moyer, a self proclaimed atheist, out of the Hamilton County Commission meeting after continuing to speak when asked to stop Thursday morning.
A Hamilton County Sheriff’s deputy escorts Aaron Moyer, a self proclaimed atheist, out of the Hamilton County Commission meeting after continuing to speak when asked to stop Thursday morning.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Two residents who publicly oppose opening prayers at Hamilton County Commission meetings were escorted out of Thursday's session.

One of the men was sitting quietly in his seat when he was taken out of the commission room by a deputy sheriff.

Aaron Moyer was speaking out about the prayers during the 10-minute public comment period when Chairman Larry Henry asked him to sit down.

Moyer instead raised his voice and defied Henry's request, and the chairman called a deputy to return Moyer to his seat.

The other man, Tommy Coleman, who filed a federal lawsuit last month against commissioners over the public prayers, was sitting quietly in the audience during the interaction, but was escorted out.

After the meeting, Coleman said he wants an apology.

"I don't know why they asked me to leave," Coleman said. "I demand an apology for being taken out by public force when I didn't do anything wrong."

Coleman's attorney, Robin Flores, on Thursday added to the lawsuit a claim that commissioners unlawfully seized Coleman, violating his Fourth Amendment rights. He's now seeking $100,000 in damages. The lawsuit previously sought only an injunction and attorney's costs.

Henry later said he thought Coleman left the room on his own.

"Mr. Coleman wasn't included in what I requested," Henry said. "I really thought he just voluntarily got up and left."

Moyer had been questioning the commission's decision to accept free representation from the Alliance Defense Fund in the lawsuit and began reading a Web article about the commission's actions.

"Hamilton County has an anti-civil rights group representing them in a civil rights case," Moyer said.

About six minutes into Moyer's statement and 81/2 minutes into the public comment period, Henry said, "We need to move on; we've got two minutes."

"I've got, like, two sentences," Moyer responded.

Henry asked him to sit down, but Moyer raised his voice and kept reading. Henry then banged the gavel.

Commissioner Greg Beck told Moyer to sit down and said the microphone should be turned off.

Henry called on a sheriff's deputy seated in the rear of the room, saying, "I'm going to ask security if you would escort this gentleman to his seat."

The deputy approached Moyer, who by then was returning to his seat.

"I'm sitting down, I'm sitting down, I'm sitting down," he said.

The deputy stood next to Moyer and near Coleman, who had spoken for two minutes previously Thursday but now was seated and silent. The deputy signaled Coleman to join her, then led Moyer to the rear of the room. Coleman followed.

County Clerk Bill Knowles told Henry there was one minute left in the public comment period on the prayer issue.

June Griffin, a Dayton, Tenn., resident who owns property in Hamilton County, told commissioners that she had intervened in the federal lawsuit against them and asked for five minutes to speak.

"I'm sorry that these people have taken the time," Henry said.

Explaining that her expected ride couldn't bring her to the meeting, Griffin said, "I had to hitchhike down here in the rain. These people are interfering with our rights."

After Griffin spoke, Chattanooga Tea Party member Charlie Wysong approached the microphone.

"Time has been exhausted on this," Henry said.

Wysong spoke for at least two more minutes about federal courts' reasonable person standard. Wysong said Coleman and his supporters are not reasonable but "hypersensitive."

"You're reasonable men; you're elected by the people," Wysong said. "Leaders don't need support to stand. You can stand alone."

Briefs from attorneys in the case are due to U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice by July 19 on Coleman and plaintiff Brandon Jones' motion for preliminary injunction, which would halt prayers until Mattice can rule on the case. A hearing on the motion is set for July 26.

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about Ansley Haman...

Ansley Haman covers Hamilton County government. A native of Spring City, Tenn., she grew up reading the Chattanooga Times and Chattanooga Free Press, which sparked her passion for journalism. Ansley's happy to be home after a decade of adventures in more than 20 countries and 40 states. She gathered stories while living, working and studying in Swansea, Wales, Cape Town, South Africa, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn. Along the way, she interned for ...

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