Four members of three faith traditions say the Hamilton County Commission should be able to reach a middle ground regarding prayers before weekly meetings.
"We appreciate the work of our elected officials," said Michael Dzik, executive director of the Jewish Cultural Center of Greater Chattanooga. "And, with such diversity in Chattanooga, we encourage the inclusiveness of all faiths and cultures."
Local residents Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones sued the County Commission last month, saying the commission's invocations, which often close with the phrase "in Jesus' name," violate the First Amendment's Establishment Clause against the government endorsing any particular religion.
U.S. District Court Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice has set a July 26 hearing to consider whether to grant a preliminary injunction to halt the prayers until he can rule on the lawsuit.
Jerry Harwood, executive pastor of First Presbyterian Church, said he can appreciate the tension of elected officials trying to balance their personal beliefs with respecting people who may not agree with them.
"I'm interested in seeing prayer intertwined with the community," Harwood said, adding that he was referring not just to the government, but the golf and country club and the Little League. "It's part of our citizens' DNA."
However, "in some sense," Harwood said, "I can appreciate the idea of allowing tolerance on the other side of that."
The Rev. D. Andrew Olivo, curate at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, expressed similar feelings.
"As a Christian, I believe in Jesus. I'm not ashamed of that," he said. "If those who are praying are willing to do it in an inclusive manner, then I'm OK with it."
In fact, the political arena calls for more inclusiveness, Olivo said. Indeed, he said, government officials may need to determine if the prayer is "absolutely necessary" to the work of the governing body.
Either way, he said, "when various members of the clergy [at St. Paul's] are invited to speak or pray, we try to be sensitive and mindful that everyone gathered might not share our faith or belief."
Bassm Issa, who sits on the board of directors of the Islamic Community of Greater Chattanooga, said he respects everyone's faith traditions. His faith's Quran, for instance, has references to Jesus, Mary and "everything else," he said. Many Muslims "know so much about Christianity. It's very close to us."
So Issa said he isn't bothered when the commission allows members of specific faiths to pray in their heritage.
"I don't have an issue with it," he said. "We all pray to one God. It doesn't seem out of order. All I see [when a prayer is said] is a prayer. To prevent it is not a good thing."