Federal appeals court mulls arguments in Hamilton County Commission prayer lawsuit

Federal appeals court mulls arguments in Hamilton County Commission prayer lawsuit

April 29th, 2013 by Louie Brogdon in Local Regional News

Brandon Jones, left, and Thomas Coleman, right, lead a rally on the second level of the Hamilton County Courthouse in this file photo.

Photo by Dan Henry/Times Free Press.

Attorneys in the Hamilton County Commission prayer lawsuit say they've made their cases and are awaiting word from a federal appeals court.

Lawyers for the county, and for Thomas Coleman and Brandon Jones, who are suing to stop prayers at commission meetings, traveled to Cincinnati last week to appear before the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Coleman and Jones had appealed an August 2012 ruling by U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice denying a request to stop the prayers while the overarching lawsuit is resolved.

On Wednesday, a three-judge panel heard oral arguments from both sides on that issue.

Robin Flores, attorney for Coleman and Jones, said that along with trying to determine the constitutional integrity of the county's prayer policy, the panel asked questions that probed the policy's validity.

POLL: Should the county commission be allowed to pray before meeting?

Flores is arguing Mattice's March ruling needs review. Mattice ruled that the policy hadn't been in place long enough to determine whether it restricted civil rights, and he denied a motion for preliminary injunction.

Flores argues that Coleman's rights already have been restricted because his client has not been allowed to give an invocation at a County Commission meeting.

Coleman, an ordained minister and atheist, asked in November to get on the list of people performing the invocation. He said he has not been allowed to do so, and county officials haven't said why.

"The problem we have is, how many times do they have to be harmed before it's been long enough -- one meeting, two meetings?" Flores said.

He also said the county's prayer policy -- which he says was adopted after the original lawsuit was filed in June 2012 -- is bogus.

"The policy in and of itself is just a sham. You can't slap a clown mask on a pig and say it's a clown," Flores said.

Steve Duggins, who is representing the county, said the policy is constitutional and that Mattice did not err by refusing to bar prayer in meetings.

"We don't believe it would be appropriate for the Court of Appeals to rule on anything outside of that," Duggins said.

While the focus of the appeals court is limited, Duggins said all on the court were "very engaged and interested in questioning both sides."

Transcripts for the oral arguments were not available Friday.

Neither attorney could say when the court would rule on the injunction issue, but the lawsuit can move no further until then.

Still, because the case involves a preliminary injunction, Flores expects the court to issue an opinion in coming months.

If the court goes against Flores and his clients, he will request that the full 6th Circuit review the case.

"I think they would grant that," Flores said.

Commissioner Jim Fields also attended the arguments on the commission's behalf.

Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at lbrogdon@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6481.