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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Clint Langford, 27, reads from the Book of Romans along Dayton Boulevard in Red Bank, Tennessee, on Feb. 27, 2021.

A change from the Red Bank commission last year set off a weekslong debate in the town, leaving some to question the city's path under new leadership and others to push for change they think is long overdue.

The fight was not over changing the tax rate or trash pickup. Instead, commissioners said they received dozens of calls about a moment of silence.

"I have heard from so many citizens of Red Bank that they're just not happy about that. I just don't think it's a good thing to do that," said Commissioner Ruth Jeno during a Jan. 19 virtual work session. Jeno was elected to the city commission in 2007. "I'm just not comfortable with not having some kind of prayer."

The move by Mayor Hollie Berry, in her first full meeting as mayor, to replace prayer with a minute of silence at the opening of the meeting pitted new leadership against the town's old guard and signaled the potentially difficult path ahead for those looking to shift from the way things have always been done in Red Bank.

The commissioners hurt by the decision said they heard from constituents who were outraged. The commissioners who thought a moment of silence was more inclusive said they heard from residents who applauded the decision.

The town of nearly 12,000 people is 88% white and more racially homogenous than Chattanooga or Hamilton County. There is little available data on the religious beliefs of Red Bank residents, though a list compiled by the city shows only Christian houses of worship in its city limits. Several churches sit in prominent positions in the city's downtown, from Red Bank Baptist Church on Dayton Boulevard to Red Bank Cumberland Presbyterian Church on a nearby hill.

However, for Chattanooga being dubbed the "Buckle of the Bible Belt" or the "most churchgoing city in America," the area is not homogenous in faith, with strong Jewish and Muslim communities, as well as a growing population of atheists or people who identify as spiritual without a particular label.

At the same time, the demographics of Red Bank are changing as it becomes a destination for individuals and families who find nearby Northshore too expensive. Home values in Red Bank increased by around 70% since 2015 and have become comparable to Chattanooga prices in the past two years, according to data from Zillow.

Berry and Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton, both in their 30s, were elected to the five-member commission in landslide victories, doubling their opponents' vote totals in November. The two ran on similar platforms of supporting local businesses and creating more parks. On Dec. 2, the commission elected them mayor and vice mayor.

At the next meeting, on Dec. 15, Berry asked the other commissioners to recognize a moment of silence to compose themselves before starting the meeting. In the past, a commissioner led an invocation prayer.

Dalton said she and Berry were elected to represent the residents of the town, many of whom said the commission ignored them. The two, while campaigning, knocked on around 2,000 doors in the town and learned about the religious diversity of Red Bank, Dalton said.

"What we kept hearing from a lot of people, and not just the newer people that are moving here but decadeslong residents who had been here and saying we're really tired of this 'good old boy' system that we have here," Dalton told the Times Free Press. "The governmental system doesn't really listen to us. I used to go to meetings and used to have big concerns and really felt like I had to express those concerns, but then I realized that nobody was listening."

But before Dalton and Berry could work on creating a new park or establishing bike lanes, they were forced to address the invocation change. Some commissioners believed the governing body needed prayer. " "Something there other than a moment of silence," said Commissioner Ed LeCompte, during the Jan. 19 work session.

One commissioner said there will always be religious disagreements, even within the same church, so the group did not need to be totally inclusive. There were concerns about the change being made without public input.

During the Jan. 19 work session, Dalton and Berry read written statements responding to concerns about the change.

"As someone who was elected to represent all Red Bank citizens, old and new, I cannot ethically support the continuation of an invocation that excludes so many of our wonderful citizens that live here and who have chosen to make Red Bank their home," Dalton said during the meeting.

Residents who called into virtual meetings in the past month were split in support and outrage about the decision.

Berry, in support of the moment of silence, quoted the Book of Matthew when Jesus tells his followers to pray in private. She met her husband in church and identifies as a Christian, Berry told the commission. Silence offers people a chance to pray, meditate or do whatever they think is best without excluding anyone, she said.

Rick Causer, who called into a recent meeting and previously held the same commission seat as Dalton, would not say whether he feels optimistic about the direction Red Bank is going under its new leadership. The town "absolutely" needs to have strong Christian leaders, Causer told the Times Free Press. Removing prayer from the meeting is "reckless," he said.

"I think it's a shame because if you're going to take prayer and everything out of the government down there, then what's your next move?" Causer said. "Are you going to be attacking the churches? Are you going to be pushing for a godless community? You don't know what their intent is down the road and what that's going to encourage for other people who come into the community to run for those offices."

Christopher Line, staff attorney from the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said opening a public meeting in prayer is inappropriate. Even with the best intentions, a prayer will marginalize some community members, he said.

"For a public meeting like this, everyone is coming together so we shouldn't be reminded of our differences or divided by faith," Line said. "We should be doing things that bring people together. In that regard, in these situations, we always suggest changing to a moment of silence if you have to have something."

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that local governments could include prayer in meetings as long as the prayers were not used to convert or intimidate nonbelievers.

An argument similar to the one in Red Bank played out in the Hamilton County Commission between 2012 and 2015, with a judge citing the Supreme Court decision to allow prayer. The county commission has local faith leaders lead the invocation at its meetings.

After weeks of discussion, the Red Bank commission voted unanimously on Feb. 16 to adopt a resolution allowing area faith leaders to lead the invocation at the start of meetings.

The city compiled a list of all IRS-recognized houses of worship in the city and within 1 mile of the city limits. Invitations to lead the invocation will be sent to each of these faith leaders. In the event no one is scheduled to lead the invocation, the commission will recognize a moment of silence for the invocation.

There are 49 houses of worship in the city limits or within the 1-mile boundary. Every one of these religious groups is Christian. However, the resolution allows faith leaders outside those guidelines to lead the invocation if a Red Bank resident attends that house of worship and requests that its leader be included.

Dalton said the resolution offered inclusion for non-Christian voices and was something the commission could reach consensus on.

But, for new leadership with hopes of changing Red Bank, the intensity of pushback over modifying the invocation could be a sign of many uphill battles to come.

"I expect it to continue happening," Dalton said. "Hollie and I getting elected represents a complete shift in the dynamic of officials that have normally made up the Red Bank commission."

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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