Judge To Rule Later In County Commission Prayer Case

County Commission Should Not Tell People Whether, Or How, To Pray, Plaintiffs Contend

Thursday, July 26, 2012 - by Judy Frank

A federal judge in Chattanooga has given attorneys for both sides two weeks to provide the court with all the evidence and arguments they want him to consider when deciding whether to grant a preliminary injunction ending prayer at Hamilton County Commission meetings.

Attorney Stephen S. Duggins, arguing on behalf of the county, contended during a hearing Thursday morning that the commission’s July 3 adoption of a new policy governing opening invocations renders the plaintiff’s case “moot.”

The old policy, which was in effect at the time the lawsuit seeking the injunction was filed, is no longer in effect, he said. Consequently, he argued, “there’s nothing to enjoin.” After the lawsuit was filed, the commission passed a prayer policy. It includes compiling a list of local ministers to deliver the prayers.

Mr. Duggins also pooh-poohed plaintiff Thomas Joseph "Tommy" Coleman’s request to amend the original complaint to include his ejection from a commission meeting and allow him to seek damages. The action came after another anti-public prayer speaker refused to yield the podium though Commission Chairman Larry Henry was rapping his gavel.

Judge Harry S. “Sandy” Mattice said he wants more information before deciding those and other issues. He instructed Mr. Duggins and attorney Robin Flores, representing the plaintiffs, to submit all evidence by Aug. 2.

Their final briefs, he told them, must be turned in no later than Aug. 8.

The judge’s instructions to the attorneys came at the end of a hearing during which Mr. Coleman and his fellow plaintiff, Brandon Raymond Jones, both took the stand to explain how they came to file suit against the county.

Both said they have no problem with people who choose to pray, or choose not to pray, in public places such as on the sidewalk or during the public comment portion of the commission agenda.

But they do object, they said, when government officials tell people when, where and how to pray.

Mr. Coleman, for example, recalled one clergyman who used the opening prayer he gave at a commission meeting to criticize Mr.Coleman and people who agreed with his position.

“This pastor was brought in to attack myself and my friends, and was rewarded for it,” he told the packed courtroom, noting that after the prayer commissioners gave the clergyman a clock bought and paid for by Hamilton County taxpayers.

Over and over, Judge Mattice interrupted the procedures to ask witnesses, and the attorneys, questions of his own.

In particular, he wanted to know their position on whether it is constitutional for governments to endorse sectarian prayers, or particular religious – or non-religious – expressions.

Mr. Jones, who is a philosophy major at the University of Tennesseeat Chattanooga as well as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said he believes such actions are prohibited.

“Governments should be neutral” regarding religion, he said.

Both he and Mr. Coleman said they believe the only type of opening invocation that does not violate anybody’s rights is a few moments of silence during people can choose whether, and how, to pray without outsidepressure.

After a hearing on Thursday, Federal Judge Sandy Mattice said he will rule later in the County Commission prayer case.

He gave attorneys until Aug. 8 to file additional legal briefs.

One of the plaintiffs in the case seeking to block opening prayers at commission meetings was the first witness at the hearing.

Tommy Coleman told Judge Mattice that he was forcibly removed from a commission meeting after he and others had made statements in opposition to the prayers. The action came after another anti-public prayer speaker refused to yield the podium though Commission Chairman Larry Henry was rapping his gavel.

Mr. Coleman said he has no opposition to prayer, but he said the commission stance supports a particular religion - Christianity.

He said he and co-plaintiff Jones had urged the commission instead to open the meetings with a moment of silence.

Christian activists June Griffin and Charles Wysong had sought to enter the case in behalf of the county's position, but that was not allowed.

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