published Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Chattanooga: Federal judge seeks more briefs in prayer case; sets Aug. 8 deadline

U.S. Federal Court House
U.S. Federal Court House

A decision about whether Hamilton County Commissioners can hold Christian prayers before meetings will have to wait a few weeks.

U.S. District Court Judge Harry “Sandy” Mattice Jr. today ordered optional briefs from plaintiffs and attorneys representing the county on the issue.

“I do believe the community deserves an answer on this,” Mattice said.

He told both sides he would try to arrange his docket to rule as quickly as possible once any briefs are filed by Aug. 8.

The judge made clear he has a few outstanding questions about what the plaintiffs want and whether the county still maintains that his decision should be based on the policy Hamilton County Commmissioners passed earlier this month.

He signaled to the parties that upholding the policy on its face could require him to find that some amount of sectarian involvement is constitutional.

“But I have already told you that there is some language from the 6th Circuit, and maybe elsewhere, that that might not be the case,” Mattice said.

Earlier today, Mattice signaled some of the constitutional difficulties of the lawsuit against Hamilton County.

He pointed to two U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued the same day in 2005 that offer conflicting opinions about whether there should be government neutrality between religious beliefs and none at all.

“If anybody can reconcile these things, they’re a better lawyer than me,” he said.

Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones filed a lawsuit in the Eastern District of Tennessee last month, asking the court to order the County Commission to stop holding Christian prayers. The plaintiffs later filed a motion seeking a preliminary injunction against the county to halt the prayers until Mattice could rule in the case.

Coleman testified this morning for an hour and 45 minutes about his positions.

Mattice told Coleman’s attorney, Robin Flores, that he would ultimately ask Flores what he thinks would be a constitutionally permissible restraint on commission prayers until the court rules.

The bar for the plaintiffs seeking the preliminary injunction is high, and the county’s attorneys argue that one isn’t necessary because a new invocation speaker policy passed July 3 made all the actions before its implementation moot.

Both sides make a number of arguments, but one of the four factors the court must weigh is whether the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their case.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled a number of times on the conflict between the freedom of religion and the establishment clause in public school prayer situations, one decision stands out on the issue of legislative prayer — Marsh v. Chambers — a 1983 case in which the Supreme Court upheld prayer in a 6-3 decision.

In the Hamilton County case, lawyers for both the plaintiffs and the county use Marsh to help make their cases in briefs filed last week. The plaintiffs’ motion argues that the invocation policy and practice establishes religion.

The county’s case relies on Marsh and makes a number of other constitutional arguments against the injunction.

“In light of the unambiguous and unbroken history of more than 200 years, there can be no doubt that the practice of opening legislative sessions with prayer has become part of the fabric of our society,” Chief Justice Warren Burger wrote for the majority in Marsh. “To invoke Divine guidance on a public body entrusted with making the laws is not, in these circumstances, an ‘establishment’ of religion or a step toward establishment; it is simply a tolerable acknowledgment of beliefs widely held among the people of this country.”

Still, the two U.S. Courts of Appeals are split on how to apply Marsh. But the 6th Circuit, which includes the federal district courts in Tennessee, hasn’t ruled directly on legislative prayer.

Read more in tomorrow’s Times Free Press.

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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