Red Bank Commissioner-elect Hollie Berry told the Times Free Press after her race in November that she planned to make good on the ideas she discussed with voters.
She mentioned a new park, no-cost library cards, safer pedestrian and bicycle routes, and the support of independent, locally owned businesses. She didn't mention replacing the prayer that opened city council meetings with a moment of silence.
"Now, with a landslide victory," Berry said, "I have a mandate to carry out the plans and ideas I shared with my many wonderful neighbors."
On Dec. 2, her fellow commissioners elected her mayor. At the next meeting, she opened proceedings by asking those present to observe a moment of silence. Previously, a commissioner had led an invocation prayer.
That didn't sit well with some of her fellow commissioners and some Red Bank residents, though others thought it was a welcome change.
Two-and-a-half months later, after discussion at numerous meetings, the commission voted unanimously (including Berry) to adopt a resolution allowing area faith leaders to lead an invocation at the start of meetings.
It is basically the same set-up used by the Hamilton County Commission, whose form of invocation was deemed constitutional in 2015 by U.S. District Judge Harry S. "Sandy" Mattice as long as it "does not advance one religion over another."
The cities of Chattanooga, Collegedale, East Ridge, Lookout Mountain, Ridgeside and Soddy-Daisy all still begin their council or commission meeting with invocations. The minutes of commission meetings at Lakesite do not mention an invocation, though a moment of silence was observed to honor a recently deceased past mayor during a 2020 meeting. The town of Walden opened its proceedings with a prayer at its January meeting, but minutes of recent previous meetings did not indicate similar observances.
The Town of Signal Mountain formerly opened its meetings with invocations, but those ended in November 2019. Since then, they have opened proceedings with a moment of silence.
Red Bank, few would disagree, is a city in transition. A sleepy suburb of Chattanooga for many years, its population plateaued at 13,129 with the 1980 census. Since then, it gradually declined as its population aged.
However, in the last decade, with its south end only minutes from downtown Chattanooga, it has become a popular destination for singles and younger families who are not able to afford housing in the gentrified North Shore. Its estimated 2019 census showed a population gain of 1.6% from 2010, and the 2020 census is likely to show an even larger jump.
Mayor Berry and Vice Mayor Stefanie Dalton, both in their 30s, are part of that younger population, a demographic that sociologists say is far more secular than its elders and whose faith — when that is a part of their life — is far more diverse than those in previous generations.
"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 Jan. 19 work session meeting.
Fair enough. But with 17% of its residents 65 and over, a population with a much higher adherence to faith, was it proper to yank all prayer before meetings overnight?
Our feeling is that the matter of invocations first needed to be debated in an open meeting, with input from those of faith, those of no faith and those somewhere in between. Indeed, that's how all matters of government need to be handled.
Change is always hard. It's probably hard for Red Bank lifers to see homes where there once were none, to see their churches thin out even as new families move into neighborhoods and to note their streets aren't as tranquil as they once were. And its probably hard for younger people used to excitement to move into what had been staid, quiet neighborhoods where many of the residents are older.
But the city wound up where it ought to be — with a compromise. Letters were sent to all 49 houses of worship in Red Bank or within a mile of its limits with an offer to lead an invocation for the meetings. Red Bank residents who are adherents of a house of worship outside of those limits also may invite their clergyperson to open a meeting. If no one is scheduled to offer an invocation, a moment of silence will be observed.
"I feel like this is the most inclusive we possibly could have been," said Dalton at the meeting at which the resolution was adopted.
If other issues in the city are met with similar compromises, the new commission is likely to be on solid footing.
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