A group of 27 supporters of the separation of church and state gathered on the Hamilton County Courthouse stairs Wednesday for an "Interfaith Rally."
An hour later, at the County Commission meeting inside, supporters of the commission's weekly prayers — including members of the local tea party — took seats on the opposite side of the aisle from the supporters.
When Temple Baptist's Shad Smith gave the invocation, most people in the room stood and bowed their heads while the 27 sat quietly with a finger over their lips.
Smith was one of the first ministers to respond to the commission's invitation under its new prayer policy. Commissioners invited leaders of more than 500 congregations to participate.
Wednesday was the final full commission meeting before a July 26 court hearing on a motion in connection with a federal lawsuit filed against the commission's tradition of holding prayers before its meetings. In their motion, plaintiffs Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones -- who say a moment of silence should replace the prayers -- are asking for a preliminary injunction in the case, which would temporarily halt the prayers until a judge makes a ruling in the overall lawsuit.
At the commission meeting Wednesday, residents took a full 20 minutes of the public comment period to address commissioners from both sides of the prayer issue.
"I want to be sure we have a clear understanding that each delegation wishing to address this commission will be allocated 10 minutes for their issue," Chairman Larry Henry said, clarifying the commission's policy after last week's public comment period ended with two men being escorted from the room after one of them defied Henry's order to sit down.
At that meeting, commissioners allotted only 10 minutes total for both sides of the prayer issue.
The pro-prayer contingent spoke first, led by the Chattanooga Tea Party's Charlie Wysong.
"This is the largest Christian nation that has ever existed in the history of the world," Wysong said. "This has to be something that binds and weaves our laws together."
Chattanooga Tea Party member Mark West described the lawsuit against the prayer as "a First Amendment assault."
"This is a nation that prides itself in desegregation," he said. "While we want to desegregate everything we can think of in this nation, we want to segregate religion in this room."
Maia Disbrow, 12, spoke first for those asking for a moment of silence. She described a June prayer led by Pastor Calvin Nunley as "rude toward me and some of my close friends." She said her father did not influence her to speak and described being bullied at school for believing differently than other students.
"After speaking today, I hope I have friends left at school next year," she said.
Juniper Russo, a 25-year-old member of the Unitarian Universalist Church, spoke on behalf of herself and her daughter.
"Please continue to pray, but please do so in a way that embraces the right for others to pray differently," she said.
At the rally before the commission meeting, Coleman and Jones said they won't be addressing commissioners directly any more and thanked residents for rallying to support separation of church and state.
"We're at risk of looking like punks in a lawsuit," Coleman said.
Though Tom Rose, 63, didn't speak, he attended the rally and meeting in support of the separation of church and state. Rose, a member of the Pilgrim Church, said many of his fellow churchgoers strongly support the effort.
"We, as a congregation, just feel that it's important that every religion have a say in what their belief is," he said. "One particular religion should not have precedence."
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 ...