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David Cook

Despite the tension - U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice called it "as emotional as it gets" - Thursday's preliminary hearing on the constitutionality of the Hamilton County Commission's prayer policy was a grand thing.

It was the American experience.

Two citizens - both under 30, dressed in coats and ties, one with a red pocket handkerchief - are attempting to change a government practice that's been in place as long as people can remember.

Using the Constitution, they're seeking an equal place at the table. Freedom not to pray. Their struggle is reminiscent of the long struggle of the American minority in this nation with its motto: In God We Trust.

During Thursday's hearing, the Declaration of Independence was quoted. Abraham Lincoln was mentioned.

The courtroom was a generational dichotomy: Lots of folks looked to be over 60; others under 25. One man walked through the packed courtroom wearing a blue necktie with a cross on it.

So despite the fact that - without some act of God - one side is going to lose, we must not lose sight of the democratic aspect of this lawsuit, which symbolizes what it means to be an American.

The making of a more perfect union.

Yet Thursday's hearing was also incredibly tragic.

It left me haunted with one question: What has become of Christianity in Hamilton County?



"Extremely out of place."

"They don't want me there."

These were the words plaintiff Tommy Coleman used during his testimony to describe his experience as an atheist attending the commission meetings. Coleman and Brandon Jones are suing the commission, asking for a moment of silence to replace the evangelical opening prayers that usually mention Jesus' name.

But I wonder if this lawsuit is not really about prayer. It seems more about the experience of being non-Christian in a very loud Christian society.

"It was clear he was there to attack us," Coleman testified about Calvin Nunley, pastor of Christ Family Church in Soddy-Daisy.

In June, after Coleman and Brooks had filed their suit, the commission invited Nunley to open its meeting. Nunley's prayer mentioned salvation, the cross, sin and end times.

"Lord, it is a tough day ... a time when people would be unthankful, unholy and ungrateful ... a time of lawlessness when men and women would choose to go their own way and ignore what is right," he prayed.

It sounded like an altar call. It belonged in a church.

"If they don't like our prayers," said Verna Donohoe, who was in court to support the commission, "then don't come to the meeting on time."

Commissioners Fred Skillern and Larry Henry said the prayers were part of a long-standing tradition. Both said the prayers helped them make decisions. Skillern said his constituents are in favor of prayer.

"The mass majority at Hardee's do," he said. "Every day, they tell me to keep it up."

I hope Skillern and Henry pray before making decisions. I sometimes pray before writing columns. But I don't stand up in the newsroom to do it.

Prayer should happen in a personal way. Jesus said not to pray in public. Go home. Shut the door. Don't use it publicly as a way to divide.

"I felt really out of place," Amira Laham, who was in court Thursday, said about her experience attending a commission meeting. "Ostracized."

She's Muslim. Since Friday, when Ramadan began, she's been fasting from dawn until dusk. No food. No water.

The lawsuit begs us to expand our definition of prayer, to get past the single-minded idea that the microphoned prayer is more worthwhile than if each commissioner fell to bended knee - or fasted from food or drink, or just sat in silence - before each meeting.

Jesus asked his followers to be servants, the last one in line, the least of these. To turn the other cheek, and to place the needs of others before one's own.

The commission - with all its talk of Jesus - should seek reconciliation, not victory. Its point should not be to defeat. It should lose, in order to win. Instead, it bullies and excludes.

America is better than that.