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The old policy, which was in effect at the time the lawsuit seeking the injunction was filed, is no longer in effect, he said.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.


Sign Up To Get The Latest News, Opinions From Chattanoogan.com In Real Time; Win Set Of Chattanooga Photo Books

Sign up for our Facebook and Twitter feeds and you will get the  local news in "real time." You will also be entered for a chance to win the complete set of the Chattanooga Photo Books published by Chattanoogan.com. We will give away three sets of The Remarkable Stokes Collection, Railroads In and Around Chattanooga and Paul Hiener's Historic Chattanooga to our new Facebook ... (click for more)

Moore County Jailer Facing Charges Related To Sexual Contact With Female Inmate

An investigation by special agents with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation has resulted in the indictment and arrest of a former Moore County correctional officer on charges related to having sexual contact with a female inmate .   At the request of 17 th  District Attorney General Rob Carter, on May 13, TBI special agents began working with the Moore County Sheriff’s ... (click for more)

Exempt Volunteer Fire Departments From Procurement Policies - And Response

The Hamilton County Commission just grouped a bunch of departments together in an attempt to reign in the CVB. I haven't spoken to any commissioners, but I truly believe it was unknowingly. By mandating that all non profits that receive 25 percent of their revenue follow county procurement policies, they might as well have padlocked all local volunteer fire departments. We expect ... (click for more)

Roy Exum: The Saturday Funnies

I am constantly amazed by the many emails that I receive every day. Quite curiously, I get a heavier load than I would ever have thought because the big search engines on the Internet send my Chattanoogan.com stories far and wide. Even the local ones on the Chattanooga area bring comments and I am deeply flattered. I try to read them and lament I haven’t the time to respond the ... (click for more)

Lookouts Open Second Half Play With 6-1 Win Friday Over Pensacola

LHP Stephen Gonsalves threw seven innings, leading the Chattanooga Lookouts over the Pensacola Blue Wahoos in a 6-1 win on Friday night. Rain was in the area, but had no effect on the game. The Lookouts were supposed to begin the second half of their season on Thursday, but rain pushed the game to Friday. Gonsalves was on the mound and had a terrific outing. The left-hander ... (click for more)

Cleveland High School Selects Joey Knox As Head Wrestling Coach

Cleveland High School has selected Joey Knox as the next head coach for the Blue Raider Wrestling program.  Coach Knox has been with the wrestling program as an assistant since 2013.  During his assistant coaching tenure, the team has secured six Team State Championships, including five individual State Champions and 20 State Medalists.    Cleveland High ... (click for more)