published Wednesday, May 23rd, 2012

Group challenges Hamilton County Commission for holding prayer before meetings

Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, center, works with other commissioners in this file photo.
Hamilton County Commission Chairman Larry Henry, center, works with other commissioners in this file photo.
Photo by Dan Henry /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
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Should the county commission be allowed to pray before meeting?
Letter challenging commission prayer
Letter challenging commission prayer

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is challenging the Hamilton County Commission for holding Christian prayers before meetings.

In a letter to commissioners on Monday, Patrick Elliott, staff attorney for the Madison, Wis.-based nonprofit organization, wrote "every 2012 prayer so far has been given 'in Jesus' name.'" A local complainant brought the issue to the foundation's attention.

The letter asks commissioners to "discontinue official, government prayers before government meetings."

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said Tuesday that he received the letter and asked County Attorney Rheubin Taylor to review the argument.

"This may be something we need to get some advice from our county attorney on," Henry said.

The foundation, incorporated in 1978, promotes "the constitutional principle of separation of state and church," according to its website.

The letter cites federal case law to support the argument that Christian prayer at public government meetings violates the U.S. Constitution's protections against government establishment of religion.

"The prayers here flagrantly exceed the constraints of the 1983 Supreme Court decision, Marsh v. Chambers, which carved out a narrow exception to the Establishment Clause for legislative prayer as a nod to history and custom," Elliott said in a news statement.

Henry said that, at first, he didn't see what commissioners do as any different from prayers spoken in other government meetings.

"When this first came to me yesterday, I thought, 'They're praying in Congress. They're praying in the Supreme Court,'" Henry said.

Henry said he briefly recalls the commissioners refraining from using the name of Christ or Jesus when praying, and commission might consider doing that again.

"We're not going to discontinue prayer, though," he said.

In 2002, the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of several residents, sued the county for posting the Ten Commandments in the county courthouse and two other buildings. In May 2003, a federal judge agreed that displaying the plaques violated the constitutional requirement of church and state separation and ordered officials to remove the plaques.

The judge also ordered the county to pay attorney and court costs.

Legal bills totaled about $70,000, according to newspaper archives.

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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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