published Thursday, July 26th, 2012

Hamilton County Commission prayer preliminary hearing set for today

Plaintiffs Brandon Jones, left, and Tommy Coleman, right, lead a rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse. The group attended the Hamilton County Commission meeting to address commissioners on their belief that a moment of silence should open government meetings  instead of prayer.
Plaintiffs Brandon Jones, left, and Tommy Coleman, right, lead a rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse. The group attended the Hamilton County Commission meeting to address commissioners on their belief that a moment of silence should open government meetings instead of prayer.
Photo by Dan Henry.
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Two men plan to enter the U.S. Courthouse in Chattanooga today and ask a judge to temporarily halt Hamilton County Commission's regular prayers during meetings.

Neither Brandon Jones, 25, nor Tommy Coleman, 28, imagined themselves doing so two months ago when they decided to ask commissioners to hold a moment of silence instead of a prayer.

"We really didn't know what our end game was," Jones said. "We just knew this had to stop."

Their attorney, Robin Flores, is seeking a preliminary injunction against the county until Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice can rule in the case. A hearing on the motion is set for this morning.

Jones and Coleman each said they believe they're carrying on the good fight for others who are afraid to stand up and challenge the commission's Christian prayers.

But neither initially complained to the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Madison, Wis., which sent a letter in May, asking commissioners to stop praying. They say they know who did -- a local grandmother who's quietly standing behind them -- but they declined to give her name.

After reading a Chattanooga Times Free Press story on May 23 about the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter to commissioners, Coleman said he thought to himself, "This is great, somebody is doing something."

Coleman, a once-promising young sailor and recovering addict, said he spent more than 10 years feeling powerless to change his own circumstances much less someone else's.

"I realized this was going to look like another faceless organization swooping into the South into a seemingly small town saying, 'This is what you've got to do,'" Coleman said.

Then he talked to Jones, a friend of more than a year, and they decided to ask commissioners personally on June 6 to hold a moment of silence. The pair met through the Chattanooga Freethought Association, though the organization is not active in their efforts to halt the prayers.

Coleman said he knew Jones "would be dedicated to this."

Jones said the two of them carefully crafted their first address to commissioners, but they had a feeling what the response would be even before they went.

"We were looking at the history of this city, of this county," Jones said. "We saw they probably weren't going to listen to us."

Then on June 6, County Attorney Rheubin Taylor stepped to the podium and offered an invocation that ended "in your son Jesus' name, amen." Before then, the policy was that one commissioner would be in charge of the prayer and pledge each month. This year, Taylor twice prayed at a commissioner's request.

Sitting in the audience, Coleman adapted his prepared statement, telling commissioners, "The county attorney sent a clear message by leading the commission-sanctioned prayer today."

After the meeting, the two "set about in short order trying to find somebody" to represent them in a legal action against the county, Jones said.

They said they called the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee and the Freedom From Religion Foundation before ultimately connecting with Flores, who offered to represent them pro bono.

"We're not aligned with anyone; we're not aligned with any nonprofit," Coleman said. "They're not paying us."

Jones, a Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences graduate, said the suit is about more than winning. They're seeking no monetary damages, just an order that commissioners should stop their practice.

"For me, this is a legal issue, but this is also a moral issue. This is injustice," Jones said. "Christianity, to me, is not the important aspect of this. This is a formula. They happen to have the great fortune of being the majority on this."

Though Jones, an analyst for a local corporation, decided he was an atheist at an early age, he said he respects the Christian beliefs of others in his own family. Still, his father "was a little confused at first" by his position on the commission's prayers, he said.

"He didn't really have a big problem with it," Jones said. "He just wanted to make sure I was not attacking Christianity."

Gregg Juster, a 61-year-old Jewish man who regularly attends Chattanooga Tea Party meetings, said Coleman and Jones are "atheist missionaries" and that he's never been offended by Christian prayers at public meetings.

The local tea party's president, Mark West, said that, though today's hearing will take place in a court of legal opinion, the matter already is being tried in the court of public opinion.

"I love these guys; I don't have anything against these guys," West said of Jones and Coleman. "They are in the finest nation that has ever existed, challenging the values upon which this nation is based."

Jones said he has met resistance from individuals, including one co-worker, but most people are supportive, he said. He can't say the same for the comments he's seen on local media sites.

"There's a lot of hostility there," he said. "It seems to be people who are confused; they feel threatened."

Coleman has dedicated the most time to the cause, Jones said.

The single father who said he's been clean for more than a year, just finished at Chattanooga State Community College and will begin work on a bachelor's in psychology this fall at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.

"I don't take any of it personally," Coleman said. "My entire family supports me 100 percent. It doesn't offend their faith at all."

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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