published Friday, July 27th, 2012

Federal judge promises quick ruling on Hamilton County Commission prayers

Pastor Chris Peponis, center right, delivers the opening prayer at the beginning of the Hamilton County Commission meeting Thursday afternoon. The commission meeting was delayed because members of the County Commission were subpoenaed for a hearing in federal court over a challenge to the opening prayers.
Pastor Chris Peponis, center right, delivers the opening prayer at the beginning of the Hamilton County Commission meeting Thursday afternoon. The commission meeting was delayed because members of the County Commission were subpoenaed for a hearing in federal court over a challenge to the opening prayers.
Photo by John Rawlston.
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A federal judge said Thursday he wants to hand down a decision as soon as possible on a motion seeking to halt Hamilton County Commission prayers.

"The community deserves an answer on this," said Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice. "We need to move forward."

He left it up to lawyers whether to file supplementary briefs by Aug. 8 on the motion for a preliminary injunction, saying he would rearrange his docket if necessary to rule quickly afterward.

"The jurisprudence in this area, I don't know that they've used the word 'mess,' they've probably used stronger," Mattice said. "This is about as emotional as it gets in this nation."

In June, Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones sued commissioners over Christian prayers held during regular meetings, arguing the prayers violate the First Amendment's establishment clause. Later they asked for an injunction to halt the prayers until Mattice rules in the case.

On July 3, commissioners passed a new policy on invocations they say is neutral and constitutional. The policy requires the commission staff to make a "congregations list" that includes "churches," "congregations," or other "religious assemblies."

Coleman took the stand first Thursday and testified for more than an hour.

About 50 people gathered in the largest courtroom in the Joel W. Solomon Federal Building, some chuckling when Coleman had to agree to an oath that contained "so help me God."

"The court's in no way going to draw any inference from that," Mattice said of Coleman agreeing to the standard oath.

A series of videos showed commission prayers Coleman taped during meetings, beginning with one June 6.

Coleman, a self-avowed secular humanist, said he attended his first commission meeting after reading media reports that the Freedom From Religion Foundation wrote to ask commissioners to stop Christian prayers. He said he attended because it was an open meeting and he's interested in government.

"I feel excluded, unwelcome, extremely out of place," Coleman said. "They don't want me there."

Stephen Duggins, who represents the county, cross-examined Coleman about his reasons for first attending the meetings.

"If he just inserted himself in place for the purpose of being offended, we would question his standing," Duggins said after Coleman's attorney, Robin Flores, objected to the questions.

Mattice allowed Duggins to continue the questions.

Duggins asked Coleman what types of statements should or should not be allowed as a prayer or "short solemnizing message" under the policy commissioners passed earlier this month.

Duggins' examples included one reference to "divine providence" and another to the "gracious favor of almighty God."

Coleman said he would take issue with each one under the policy.

The first reference came from the Declaration of Independence and the latter from the Emancipation Proclamation, Duggins said after Coleman answered.

"The question at the end of the day will be what is within the constitutional limits," Mattice said.

But those aren't always clear.

Mattice cited, for example, two apparently conflicting U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued on the same day in 2005 about whether there should be government neutrality between "religion and irreligion."

Jones briefly testified, echoing many of Coleman's statements.

Mattice asked Jones, who said he is an atheist, whether he would approve a hypothetical invocation statement that there is no God.

"The government is still endorsing a religious perspective, which they shouldn't do," Jones said.

Amira Laham, a Muslim who testified she's attended about 10 meetings since last year, also said she heard Christian prayers each time.

On the day the new prayer policy passed, a minister spoke the Lord's Prayer, Laham said.

"It felt very aggressive," she said of those chiming in behind her in unison. "I'm sure the feeling I got was the feeling it was intended to give me."

Duggins argued Thursday that the new policy made moot any previous events and that the two prayers held since then aren't enough to evaluate the policy's application.

Therefore, the court should evaluate only whether the policy itself is constitutional, Duggins said.

Mattice said that if the challenge is to the policy as written, he must uphold or overturn it in its entirety.

"This policy seems to me to clearly state that some type of sectarian prayer is permissible," Mattice said.

Duggins responded, "I am sure that there will be some prayers under the policy that will have a religious purpose."

Mattice asked Duggins for a brief on the issue. Mattice said he's found at least two instances where the federal appeals court that deals with Tennessee cases interpreted a key U.S. Supreme Court decision on legislative prayer, Marsh v. Chambers, to allow only nonsectarian prayer.

"That's only a couple, there may be others," he said.

Duggins said the prayers in a dissenters' footnote in Marsh invoked the name of Jesus.

"I'm not saying that," Mattice said. "I'm pointing out to you that other courts have said that, and arguably the 6th Circuit has said that."

Thursday's hearing was limited to the motion for preliminary injunction, but Mattice said he also wants the county's brief on another motion before he rules on the injunction.

The plaintiffs have amended their original suit once and now are seeking a second amendment to include July events, such as Coleman being escorted from the commission meeting by a Hamilton County deputy.

The county opposes the second amendment, Duggins said. Mattice wants a brief on the county's reasons by Monday.

"Depending on how I rule on the amendment, that may affect my analysis," Mattice said. He said repeatedly he wants the record to be clear in case the matter ends up in the 6th Circuit.

The 6th Circuit has not yet ruled directly on legislative prayer, though other circuits have.

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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