published Thursday, June 21st, 2012

Hamilton County courthouse prayer stirs controversy in Chattanooga

Protesters remain seated during an opening prayer during Wednesday's Hamilton County Commission meeting. The group addressed commissioners on their belief that a moment of silence should open government meetings instead of prayer.
Protesters remain seated during an opening prayer during Wednesday's Hamilton County Commission meeting. The group addressed 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 people who sued Hamilton County commissioners in federal court for holding regular Christian prayers during meetings led a small rally Wednesday morning and later addressed commissioners.

Eight people gathered outside the County Courthouse at 8:45 a.m. to hear plaintiffs Brandon Jones and Tommy Coleman explain why they're challenging the prayers.

"We are not against prayer. We support everyone's right to pray wherever and whenever you wish and to whomever you choose to pray to," Coleman said, arguing that the prayers -- which invoke Jesus -- violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause forbidding the government from endorsing any specific religion. No hearing has been set in the case, which has been referred to U.S. District Judge Harry Mattice.

Commissioners held a regular meeting Wednesday and Bishop Nealon Guthrie, of Georgia, opened it with a prayer. His introduction was part of the Lord's Prayer and he closed with, "We ask all of these blessings in the name of Jesus Christ, our lord and savior."

Jones said the purpose of Wednesday's rally was to remind commissioners "of their place."

"It's not their place to speak in an official capacity about the beliefs of the citizens of Hamilton County because those beliefs are as diverse and varied and as unique as the people who make up the populace," Jones said.

During the commission meeting's public comment period, self-avowed atheist Aaron Moyer, who attended the rally, spoke.

"When you open the meeting with a prayer in your deity's name -- in this case it is the name of Jesus Christ -- I simply cannot trust you to be fair to those of different faiths or of no faith, such as myself," he said.

Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West, one of many citizens present for the prayer issue, rose to support the commissioners' continued prayers.

Too many Americans "have succumbed to the onslaught of a vocal few who oppose most or all public references to God and his son, Jesus Christ, in any public setting," West said.

Hamilton County commissioners referred all questions to County Attorney Rheubin Taylor, who wasn't present Wednesday.

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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