The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Wednesday in a New York prayer lawsuit that will greatly influence the outcome of a similar case locally.
Justices heard arguments from attorneys in Greece v. Galloway, a case in which two women are suing the town of Greece, N.Y., for holding predominately Christian prayers before town council meetings. One woman is Jewish. The other is atheist.
Hamilton County residents Brandon Jones and Thomas Coleman filed an unrelated, but parallel, federal lawsuit in June 2012 over the way Hamilton County opens its commission meetings with prayer. Coleman and Jones say the county's policy violates the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment, which prohibits government from "respecting an establishment of religion."
Robin Flores, an attorney for Jones and Coleman, said what the Supreme Court decides will set the stage for the rest of the Hamilton County case.
"It will at least be able to set the law. It will be new law of the land that Judge [Harry S.] Mattice will make his judgment on," Flores said.
Until the Supreme Court issues its ruling, the local case is in discovery in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, he said.
"Our discovery requests are focusing on who's been allowed to give the invocation, who's been denied. My client was denied twice. Other than that, that's about all I can say," Flores said.
The heart of the local case is that the county's policy requires potential invocation speakers to have an established church. Two requests by Jones, an atheist, to give the invocation have been ignored by the county, according to court filings.
Attorney Steve Duggins, who is representing the county in the case, could not be reached for comment Thursday. But the county has seen two symbolic wins for its position -- including being bolstered by President Barack Obama.
The Supreme Court case has brought a great deal of attention to the case. More than 40 "friend of the court" briefs have been filed since the case was opened in October 2012. Among those is a bipartisan brief in support of prayer at public meetings filed in August by the White House and House and Senate Republicans.
In August, Duggins said he was glad to see support from the legislative and executive branches for public prayer.
Also in July, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, Ohio, upheld Mattice's year-old decision not to bar prayers at meetings before the case is concluded.
Jones and Coleman had requested an injunction on public prayers until the local case was decided.
So far, federal appellate courts in New York, Virginia, Illinois and Colorado have ruled against allowing prayer at government meetings. But courts in California, Ohio and Georgia have upheld it. Part of the Supreme Court's duty is to provide uniformity of law.
The Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling in the Galloway case by next summer.
Contact staff writer Louie Brogdon at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6481.