POLL: Should the county commission be allowed to pray before meeting?
Two residents took a dispute over prayers at the Hamilton County Commission to federal court Friday.
On June 6, two residents asked Hamilton County commissioners to stop holding Christian prayers in meetings. But commissioners didn't stop and those two residents, Tommy Coleman and Brandon Jones, sued the body and County Attorney Rheubin Taylor in U.S. District Court in Chattanooga, arguing that the prayers violate the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
"They really should have just stopped, but we are having to do this," Coleman said Friday. "We don't want any money. We just want our attorney's fees covered."
Coleman and Jones are represented by Robin Flores, who filed the complaint in the Eastern District of Tennessee and said he plans to seek a preliminary injunction -- a court order requiring an opposing party to refrain from a harmful behavior -- in coming days.
The suit says "the commission starts the meetings with a prayer and invoking the prayer in the name of Jesus" which violates the constitutional ban on government endorsing any specific religion, in this case, Christianity.
Taylor declined to comment Friday, citing ongoing litigation.
County Commission Chairman Larry Henry said he wasn't surprised by the suit.
"We were going to have our legal committee to get together and put together a policy [on prayer]," Henry said. "I wish they'd have given us an opportunity to put some kind of policy into effect."
Earlier this week, Jones and Coleman met with Flores, who told them they have a strong case, Coleman said.
Flores drafted the complaint, which argues "The acts and omissions of the defendants in the prayer practice stated herein are a blatant endorsement by government of the Christian religion that any reasonable person would see as an endorsement of the Christian religion to the exclusion of all other religions."
The plaintiffs are seeking a jury trial.
On May 21, Patrick Elliott, an attorney with the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, sent a letter to commissioners, asking them to discontinue the prayers before meetings.
The letter cited the regular use of "in Jesus' name" to conclude official prayers and argued that the prayers violate the Establishment Clause and were outside the scope allowed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Marsh v. Chambers, a 1983 decision that created an Establishment Clause exception for legislative prayer.
Since receiving the letter, commissioners have taken no official action to consider its demands or to change their practice.
Taylor, also a minister, last week said he had reviewed the letter and would advise commissioners at the appropriate time. The following day, he personally led the prayer, closing with an invocation of Christ.
Though Jones and Coleman aren't affiliated with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, they decided to publicly take up the fight. On June 6, they pleaded directly to commissioners to hold a moment of silence rather than a prayer.
Commissioners declined to act in that meeting or in an agenda session on Thursday.
Flores likens the local case to American Civil Liberties Union v. Rutherford County, a 2002 decision striking down the display of the Ten Commandments in a county building.
"Here it's very clear," Flores said.
Hamilton County had its own brush with the ACLU in 2002 when it lost a suit for having the Ten Commandments posted in the county courthouse and two other buildings. In May 2003, a federal judge ordered the plaques removed. Newspaper archives show county legal bills totaled about $70,000.
"This is important to me because I feel like throughout history there have been a few people or key moments that have stood out in terms of fighting for everyone's rights, not just those of a few individuals," Coleman said. "There's a need for this. Many people support it."