published Thursday, June 7th, 2012

Hamilton County Commission prays; residents object

Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor says a prayer before the beginning of the Hamilton County Commission meeting Wednesday morning at the courthouse.
Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor says a prayer before the beginning of the Hamilton County Commission meeting Wednesday morning at the courthouse.
Photo by Joy Lukachick.
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Hamilton County Attorney Rheubin Taylor opened Wednesday's commission meeting with a prayer in Jesus' name.

He finished the invocation with "All these blessings we ask in your son Jesus' name, amen."

Two residents took issue with that, asking commissioners during the public comment period to stop holding Christian prayers, while others stood to defend the commissioners' prayers.

"The county attorney sent a clear message by leading the commission-sanctioned prayer today," said Tommy Coleman, who wants a moment of silence instead. "Your use of prayer in this chamber and its use in official government business excludes, marginalizes, belittles other faiths and the people who practice them."

Commissioners did not signal their support one way or another on the issue. Jim Fields, the only attorney on the commission, said after the meeting that he personally is reviewing the matter.

The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation sent a letter to commissioners in May, saying that someone locally had complained about the invocation and noted that the body had invoked Jesus' name in every 2012 prayer. The letter argued the prayers are outside the scope allowable by the U.S. Supreme Court's 1983 decision Marsh v. Chambers.

County Attorney Rheubin Taylor reviewed the letter and said Tuesday he would advise commissioners at the appropriate time. He didn't advise them during Wednesday's meeting.

Commissioners received another letter dated June 1 from Richard L. Mast, an attorney for Liberty Counsel, a nonprofit law firm that offers free legal assistance in matters of Christianity.

A memo accompanying Mast's letter concluded that the prayers are constitutional "as long as the governmental body does not mandate prayers be given in a specific way, so as to proselytize or advance or disparage any one particular faith or belief, and so long as individuals that pray are permitted to speak their own words and ideas."

On Wednesday, another county resident, Brandon Jones, told commissioners he plans to reach out to groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union or the Freedom From Religion Foundation if commissioners don't stop holding Christian prayers voluntarily.

"We have the most commonly accepted interpretation of the constitution on our side. We have the most prominent names in Religious Civil Liberties on our side," Jones said. "If litigation were to take place on this issue, we would surely win."

Other citizens disagreed.

Michelle Hubbs, a county employee in the Clerk and Masters Office, argued that there should be no separation of church and state as it's currently understood.

"If you silence Christians, you silence atheists as well," she said.

During her presentation, commissioners Greg Beck and Joe Graham applauded.

Another prayer supporter, June Griffin, of Dayton, Tenn., said she owns property in Hamilton County and pays taxes here and wants to see what other residents have to say about prayers by the commission.

"I say put this to a vote, put it on the ballot," she said.

Contact staff writer Ansley Haman at ahaman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.

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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